Archive for ‘writing’


“…writing books on the way it should have been.”

That’s a photo of the bibliography of Becoming Charlemagne; I shot it the morning the final manuscript flew like the Winged Victory of Samothrace to my editor’s desk in New York. Large-scale maps scrawled with timelines and trade routes, teetering towers of library books—by that point, my workspace looked like a cross between the lair of a serial killer and Tom Hanks’ bedroom in Mazes and Monsters. So this past Thursday night, I was both honored and relieved to sit on a research-themed panel hosted by James River Writers, which taught me that this obsessive, it-puts-the-lotion-in-the-basket behavior is, at least among authors, something close to normal.

My co-panelists were Phaedra Hise, journalist and author of the meticulously reseached Pilot Error: Anatomy of a Plane Crash, and Maggie Stiefvader, whose young-adult novels about homicidal faeries and “werewolf nookie” are informed by her college study of medieval languages. (Her children are named Wulfnoð and Æðelðryð. She is hardcore.) Our trusty moderator, fantasy writer Bill Blume, did a great job. Bill writes the funny and trippy webcomic The Wildcat’s Lair, where he contends with stuffed dragons and technicolor cats in their natural habitat: the gaming table.

Writing is often dreary work. You’re up all night, flipping between the Monumenta Germaniae Historica and a twilight block of Felicity episodes (don’t judge me), paranoid that you might not meet your deadline, wondering if anyone is going to care about the ninth-century Islamic pistachio trade. Publishing a book rarely brings the wealth, the fame, or the power over life and death that many aspiring writers believe it will. When your book hits the shelves, it’s a happy day, but life just doesn’t change all that much.

…and then, once in a while, you’re invited to yak it up at a writers’ event, and you retire to a pizza joint for a late night of unrepeatable stories with smart, funny people, and you begin to understand the value of your 300-page calling card beyond the reviews and royalty statements. Writers like to gripe and whine, but when it comes to this one benefit, don’t let authors tell you otherwise, not even my fellow recluses. The social aspect, unlike the process of writing itself, is even more fun than you think it will be.

“Then I went off to fight some battle…”

On Saturday, I’ll be sitting on a panel at “Going Freelance,” a workshop sponsored by AIW and the Johns Hopkins writing program. Tilt your head and you can see the medievalist traces in this event if, like me, you were told in grade school that “freelance” was a term to describe medieval soldiers of fortune. Of course, medieval mercenaries did exist, but “freelance” isn’t a medieval word at all. The term was coined by Sir Walter Scott, the 19th-century author who almost singlehandedly inspired quasi-medieval fandom in the English-speaking world.

From The Knight and the Umbrella, here’s Ian Anstruther explaining how Scott lit the fire under the Victorians who romanticized and reinvented the Middle Ages:

It is hardly possible to realize today the immense influence of this author on contemporary drama, literature and art. His early poems like the Lay of the Last Minstrel and Marmion, which were first published in 1805 and 1808 respectively, and his great series of tales in prose which began with Waverley in 1814 and reached its peak, according to many critics, with Ivanhoe in 1819 . . . truly hypnotised all who read them.

The proof of this may be seen at a glance in the catalogues of the major exhibitions throughout the country. In the twenty-five years between the first appearance of the Waverley Novels in 1814 and the Eglinton Tournament in 1839, two hundred and sixty-six different pictures inspired by the pen of the “Wizard of the North” appeared in public galleries; every summer without a break, a scene from Ivanhoe was the subject of two of them.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first use of some version of “freelance” appears in 1820, in chapter 34 of Ivanhoe: “I offered Richard the service of my Free Lances.” The OED cites subsequent uses of “free-lance” or “freelance” as a negative term to describe politicians and journalists with minds of their own. By the early 20th century, “freelance” was a verb; soon, it came to refer to the self-employed.

If, in the spirit of medievalism (or at least dorkiness), freelance writers wanted to liken themselves to an authentic figure who represents the reality of late-medieval English contract law, they might see a kindred spirit in the Franklin from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. In the late 14th century, franklins were a newly prominent class of independent landholder. Not bound by hereditary feudal obligations, a franklin could sell his produce to the highest bidder while negotiating or even canceling deals. Like any successful freelancer, a franklin was blessedly exempt from the 14th-century equivalent of corporate team-building exercises, i.e., clearing woodlands, draining swamps, or taking an arrow in the sternum for a leek-breathed feudal lord.

But can you imagine telling your friends you’re a franklin? Can you imagine writing “franklin” under “occupation” on your tax return? It’s a legacy of the romanticized Middle Ages bequeathed to us by Sir Walter Scott and other writers, artists, and poets that we overlook the agricultural drudgery that defined most medieval lives, so that even we who sit and type all day can dream of jousts and banners bright, and tell ourselves we’re charging into battle.

“…and I bought us two tickets on that Coast City bus.”

If you’re a bookish sort, and if you find yourself near Philadelphia this Saturday, be sure to swing by the Collingswood Book Festival. The good people of Collingswood, N.J., work all year to put together a terrific day that includes six blocks of author talks, writing workshops, children’s programs, and booths for local writers, booksellers, and artists—and all events are free.

I spoke at Collingswood last year and had a great time. (A memorable time, too: I had to follow sports legend Pat Croce and compete with an Elvis impersonator down the block.) This year, keep an eye out for Steven Hart, a friend of this blog and, more importantly, the author of The Last Three Miles: Politics, Murder, and the Construction of America’s First Superhighway. Steven has written a fine book, but don’t take my word for it; check out the effusive praise it’s recieved. When you buy the book at the festival, ask Steven for the “Quid Plura?” discount. He’ll give you a confused look, but don’t be fooled; that’s how New Jersey authors always look…

“The answers to all this lie with their psychoanalysts…”

“Quid Plura?” readers regularly suffer through evidence of my terrible taste in music—but you probably didn’t know that Becoming Charlemagne also has a hokey soundtrack all its own. It’s true!

Recently, Julie K. Rose interviewed me about the music that accompanied the writing of the book. Next week, you’ll be able to read the complete interview (with rationalizations for each song choice, I swear), but for now you can hear tantalizing snippets in the podcast on the Writers and Their Soundtracks Blog. If you’re an iTunes user, you can sample the playlist, too. No one but iTunes makes any money if you buy a song, but I assure you, these tunes weave trancelike melodies that slip over the transom of social consciousness and insinuate themselves into your dreams.

As for the weird faces you’re making as you read the playlist: Go on. Really. I’m used to it. As a deejay for my high school radio station, I shared the afternoon airwaves with a committed metalhead and his polar opposite, a lovestruck soul who punctuated our show with mellow R&B dedications to his girlfriend. They found common ground by speaking unkindly of what they called “Jeff music.” Under those conditions, you learn strength of character—because really, there’s no reason not to associate the age of Charlemagne with 1980s English synth-pop. Is there?

“But she didn’t understand; she just smiled and held my hand.”

In recent weeks, Matt Gabriele at Modern Medieval has hosted a blog forum about communicating the relevance of the Middle Ages to people outside of academia. I took him up on his open invitation and wrote a short piece about the pleasures and pitfalls of “applied medievalism.” Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned after two years of book promotion, it’s that going on the road to talk about Charlemagne is a lot like touring with Mötley Crüe, if the Crüe attracted small, sober, courteous crowds whose health-care regimen never included a visit from “Dr. Feelgood.”

(That said, the next time a book festival fails to remove the yellow M&Ms from the candy dishes in my dressing room, I shall be forced to raise my voice. Surely Vince Neil would approve.)

“Les yeux sans visage…”

Humidity be darned, here are some writing-themed links for a stuffy summer weekend.

At The Story’s Story, Jake revists the cheeseball novel Day of the Triffids and contemplates the signals he’s receiving from the publishing industry as he shops around his science-fiction novels.

Ephemeral New York finds written proof that the East Village never changes.

Steven Hart notes that Philip K. Dick’s Library of America editions are selling well.

Art Durkee says not to seek out advice about writing. (Link via Books, Inq.)

Market research may not be the publishing industry’s strong point, but Random House and Zogby International have started to put faces to pairs of anonymous eyes. Their nationwide poll (12-page PDF here) does help explain who purchases books, but it won’t tell you why people bought your book—so authors, keep those runestones and pigeon livers handy!

Finally, since it’s going to be a scorching outside, here are two videos to keep you cool: Jose Iturbi listening patiently to “Route 66” and then demonstrating the real way to play the song. After that, who needs air conditioning?

“It’s a thousand pages, give or take a few…”

Want to be a writer? Want to be a better writer? At the end of a busy week, here are some useful posts by authors, agents, editors, and critics—perfect reading for a quiet, sunny weekend.

Noting that American writers tend to eschew the adverb, Kevin Wignall ponders a famous passage in which adverbs get things done.

New York Times readers debate the seven deadly words of book reviewing.

Kevin Holtsberry proposes Small Book Appreciation Week.

Richard S. Wheeler builds characters out of beliefs.

BookEnds readers point out books they’ve judged by their covers.

Steven Hart highlights vital advice for novice authors.

Leslie Pietrzyk identifies her best posts about the writing process.

Meg Gardiner summarizes “a few things that make writing ring false.”

The tap-tap-tapping of the typewriter pays…”

For the past 16 months, I’ve relentlessly hawked my own book—which, in case you hadn’t heard, is now available in a compact, affordable paperback and even a Kindle edition—but as I glance over at my blogroll, I see an impressive roster of authors, novelists, and scholars whose productivity I admire and whose work deserves attention and praise.

Michael Drout at Wormtalk and Slugspeak is the author of How Tradition Works: A Meme-Based Cultural Poetics of the Anglo-Saxon Tenth Century, an intriguing study of the Benedictine Reform. He also edited The J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia, to which a certain D.C.-based blogger contributed the first and last word on Tolkien and postage stamps.

Alexis Fajardo, the cartoonist who created the all-ages comic Kid Beowulf, has an online shop full of goodies, including Book One of Kid Beowulf, a preview of Kid Beowulf and the Song of Roland, and an anthology of mythological action tales.

Matthew Gabriele at Modern Medieval is the editor of the forthcoming The Legend of Charlemagne in the Middle Ages: Power, Faith, and Crusade, a collection of articles I am rather eager to read.

My Garden State broheim Steven Hart is the author of The Last Three Miles: Politics, Murder, and the Construction of America’s First Superhighway. He also wrote a much-needed piece debunking the hallowed George Lucas-Joseph Campbell connection.

Michael Livingston, who teaches medieval lit at The Citadel, is a prolific writer of short stories. He also edited John Gower’s In Praise of Peace and The Siege of Jerusalem for the invaluable TEAMS Middle English Texts series. (His intro to The Siege of Jerusalem is an enlightening primer on a highly unpleasant medieval poem.)

The very busy C.M. Mayo, who divides her time between D.C. and Mexico, has written a traveler’s guide to literary Mexico, an award-winning story collection, and a forthcoming novel, The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire.

My pal Scott Nokes at Unlocked Wordhoard co-edited Global Perspectives on Medieval English Literature, Language, and Culture, a new collection of articles about such wide-ranging subjects as Chaucer, Narnia, and the Popol Vuh.

Last fall, I met Work-in-Progress blogger Leslie Pietrzyk at a fundraiser in Virginia. She’s the author of two lovely novels, A Year and a Day and Pears on a Willow Tree. (The latter, which focuses on several generations of Polish-American women, recently won the Jeff’s Mom Seal of Approval, an honor not lightly bestowed.)

Alan Sullivan, the poetic helmsman of Seablogger, co-translated a strong and highly readable version of Beowulf for Longman.

The authors at Contemporary Nomad have more books to their credit than I can list, but I particularly recommend the haunting series of Eastern European spy novels by Olen Steinhauer, who writes literary fiction disguised as genre fiction.

I hope you’ll decide to learn more about these hard-working writers; please support their efforts by purchasing some of their books.

“Well, at least there’s pretty lights…”

Sacré Charlemagne! My Garden State broheim Steven Hart has meme-tagged me. I am rarely a perpetuator of memes—not because I wish to be rude, but because I often have nothing clever to add—but Steven makes it easy for me. He asks me to take my own book and do the following:

• look up page 123
• look for the fifth sentence
• then post the three sentences that follow that fifth sentence on page 123.

Thusly and forthwith:

Did the Holy Father really have, across his eyes, a scar as pure and white as any dove? Perhaps they paused in their work—hard days of August spent harvesting, a September spent sowing rye and winter wheat—to mutter half-hearted nonsense about foreigners. Strange men continually visited the king, but after all this time, few were exotic enough to concern the locals.

I haven’t read my own book since shortly before it was published, so it’s odd, even eerie, to revisit a passage I wrote in 2005 and almost see it anew, while recalling, not necessarily fondly, the crepuscular smudge of sleeplessness, stalling, and ambient cop-show marathons that got the book finished. (On the up side, I finally got to see, after ten years, what the guy who delivers the morning paper actually looks like. Imagine his surprise.) How strange that for an author, a published book is a private time capsule—even if it does emit a little voice that keeps intoning, “get cracking on the next one.” (A voice that sounds suspiciously like my agent.)

“Now mister, the day my number comes in…”

Aspiring writers will often obsess over honing their style and making a true work of art. Some tend to overlook practical matters; they’re the folks who are most likely to need, but are just as likely to ignore, Steven Hart’s round-up of “nitty-gritty stuff” about the writing business. John Scalzi’s post is especially useful: “Unasked-For Advice to New Writers About Money.”

Scalzi’s best advice (after “don’t be a heavy metal bassist”) is this: “Writing is a business. Act like it.” One of his commenters stresses the importance of saving receipts, a small inconvenience I strongly endorse. (Driving to your first author appearance? $3.01. The silent scream of your psyche when the C-SPAN cameras start rolling? Priceless.)