Year of Reading Buechner: Godric

Godric is the second of Frederick Buechner’s books that take place in early medieval England. I reviewed Brendan: A Novel, here on the blog a couple months ago. This month, I turned with great eagerness to Godric.

Godric was published in 1981, so it came before Brendan, which was published in 1987. Probably if I was clever I should have read them in order of publication, but ho hum, oh well.

Godric was published to great acclaim. Edmund Fuller of The Wall Street Journal said in his review, “With a poet’s sensibly and a high reverent fancy, Frederick Buechner paints a memorable portrait.” Similar praise came from The New York Times Book Review, The Atlantic, and Publisher’s Weekly. The book was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1981.

All this to say that this is a remarkable novel, and again, Buechner succeeds in bringing this all-to-human saint to life, warts and all.

I didn’t realize until 3/4 of the way through this book that this story, like Brendan’s, was based on the life of a real person, St. Godric of Finchale (1065 – 1170AD). Godric was a popular medieval saint, but he was never formally canonized.

His official hagiography (life of a saint) was written during his lifetime by Reginald of Durham, a monk who knew Godric, and who apparently had Godric bless his manuscript before Godric died. There are apparently other hagiographies of Godric as well, but Reginald’s is the most important.

Godric-Finchale

St. Godric of Finchale, from the Cotton Faustina B manuscript, in the British Library. Image from Wikicommons

The bare bones of Godric’s story is that he was born to poor parents, and became a pedlar, merchant, and finally a sailor, plying his trade to places both near and far. It is possible he owned the ship that ferried the crusader king Baldwin I of Jerusalem to Jaffa in 1102 AD to prepare for a siege against Jerusalem.

During his years at sea, he apparently went to Farne Island, where he had a spiritual encounter with Cuthbert, the beloved Bishop of Lindisfarne, who was long dead by this point. This encounter changed Godric. He dedicated himself to Christ and devoted the rest of his life to Him.

Eventually Godric ended up at Finchale, which is around four miles from the monastery at Durham, where Cuthbert was buried. He lived there for around 50-60 years as an extremely ascetic hermit and died as a very old man.

Godric’s story is a fascinating one. That Reginald actually knew the saint makes his hagiography even more interesting, I think. But even so, it is a “official” account of his life, with hardly a wrinkle showing.

Buechner’s account has no such restraints. There are plenty of wrinkles in this tale. Buechner’s Godric is irrascable, selfish, bitter, and guilt-ridden, and he spends much of the book pining for the love of his life, who happens to be his sister.

I’m glad that I have read a couple of Buechner’s other biographical works – The Son of Laughter (the story of the biblical patriarch Jacob), and Brendan. Both of those books I enjoyed, but they gave me some familiarity of Buechner’s penchance for presenting “holy” figures as all-too-human, no halo attached.

As always, the writing in this book is strong. Buechner gives us lyrical and thoughtful prose, filled with sentences that make you stop and ponder. For example, when he takes his mother to Rome to pray for his father’s soul, they look out over the ruined Coliseum and weep.

Why did we weep? I asked myself. We wept for all that grandeur gone. We wept for martyrs cruelly slain. We wept for Christ, who suffered death upon a tree and suffers still to see our suffering. But more than anything, I think, we wept for us, and so it ever is with tears. Whatever be their outward cause, within the chancel of the heart it’s we ourselves for whom they finally fall. 

The book is full of passages like this. It’s a book that wrestles with faith, doubt and devotion, and what those things meant to Godric in his time and place, and gives you pause to ponder what they mean to you in yours. It’s a portrait of a sinful man who seeks absolution and mercy, and who tries in his humanness to overcome his flaws.

It’s a book that requires more than one reading, I think. I will admit that I did not love it upon first reading, but as I flip back over the pages and see all the places that I underlined and marked, I feel a greater appreciation for it. It’s a book that, like Godric himself, I suspect, you have to sit with awhile to really get to know and appreciate.

There’s a reason why this book was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. This honest look at one person’s spiritual journey refuses to rest on pat answers or platitudes, yet it remains reverent all the same. In the book Buechner gives Godric more than one encounter with Cuthbert, and as well with a mysterious figure named Gillian, an angel-type being that encourages him even before he meets Cuthbert to embrace Christ. And despite his flaws, and turnings away, Godric’s life is a trajectory towards Christ all the same.

Godric’s story is not told in chronological order. It starts with Godric as an old man, looking back on his life, telling the story to Reginald, and this older Godric’s story is interspersed with the tale of his life as a child and going forward. I think this makes for a richer book, as we get Godric’s interpretation of his life’s choices and reflections on them as the book moves along, which makes the story deeper.

I can’t quite decide whether I found this book depressing or hopeful. It’s a bit more gloomy than the other two biographies, to be sure, and because of that I found it more difficult going. But it’s not all shadows. The light peeks in here and there, sometimes more strongly than others. Godric’s final words in the book, just before he dies, are, All’s lost. All’s found. Farewell. That pretty well sums up  the tension in the book between despair and hope.

At one point Godric remarks, How seemly is a life when told to children thus, with all the grief and ugliness snipped out. I suppose it’s how monk Reginald will tell of mine. 

This book contains all the grief and ugliness, to be sure. But because of that, the light that shines is all the brighter.

It’s a complex book. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. But it’s a marvellous portrait of one man’s life, in all it’s glory and shame, and the telling of it asks questions of us. And in the end, that’s the kind of book that means the most.


Other posts in the Year of Reading Buechner series:

2018 Reading Challenge: The Year of Reading Buechner

Year of Reading Buechner: The Remarkable Ordinary

Year of Reading Buechner: A Sacred Journey

Year of Reading Buechner: Brendan, A Novel

Year of Reading Buechner: The Alphabet of Grace

Year of Reading Buechner: Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation


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Book Launch Blues

So…my revisions are done! Kinda. Basically.* I have come to the end of The Whole Thing and lifted my fingers from the keyboard. Phew. The next immediate tasks are to read it all over myself and look for obvious flaws and problems in the MS, send it out to beta readers for feedback, and *maybe* a final professional edit.

While that is going on, however, I do need to start focussing on the next phase of this whole she-bang, which is planning out my book launch.

It’s not easy, let me tell ya. First, just for clarity’s sake, when I say “book launch” I don’t mean a party where I invite a bunch of people and we sit around and celebrate and everyone buys my book and goes home happy. I might do that, but that’s not exactly what I mean.

“Book launch” means the process of getting your book ready for publication, and then planning the marketing activities that will happen both before and after the date it goes live at e-retailers (Amazon, Kobo, etc) to ensure people know the book is available for purchase.

This process may or may not consist of the following:

  • cover design
  • book formatting
  • seeking endorsements
  • distribution strategy
  • marketing tactics
  • budget
  • building a book launch team
  • creating pre-launch content for blog and newsletter
  • create a book review campaign
  • create a social media campaign
  • create a pre-order campaign
  • set up giveaways and contests
  • get busy networking with other authors, readers, and influencers in your book’s genre
  • plan blog tours or book tours
  • plan ad campaigns on social media sites

I could go on, and on, and ON. These are just a few of the tasks that various experts recommend for self-publishing authors as they get ready to publish their books.

I don’t know about you, but that list (which I emphasize again is only a partial list) makes me want to crawl into bed and pull the covers over my head. Each one of those tasks is a big job in themselves. And I have to do all of it, and more?

The great part of self-publishing is that you have control over the entire process, and the success of your book is entirely in your hands. The bad part of self-publishing is that you have control over the entire process, and the success of your book is entirely in your hands.

Let me be brutally honest here. The reality is that there are a LOT of books out there for people to read. And it’s very, very difficult for an author to be noticed, hence all the marketing stuff. So I certainly am under no illusions that I will be the next bestselling debut author. I mean, if it happens, yay me, but I’m not holding my breath, here.

But I am excited to get the book out there into the world and into the hands of people like me, who enjoy historical fantasy books.  That means I need to do some marketing so that people like me know that the book is available, at least. There’s no law saying I have to do any of it, of course. I could just upload it to Kindle tomorrow and wait for the sales to begin. But that is not the best strategy. I would sell a handful of copies to my family and friends and that would be about it.

So somehow I have to figure out what I can realistically do and what I am willing to let lie on the way to publication. I wish I had someone to tell me to do “this, this, and that, and leave the rest”, but I don’t. I just have to figure it out myself. I have to be realistic about how much time and money I have to spend on this, and then just get going, one step at a time.

It’s exciting, but daunting. October is four months away. Which doesn’t feel like a lot of time, given what I need to do. But I’m sticking with that date, unless something drastic comes along to make me change it. I could fiddle around with all this forever and use it as an excuse to put off publishing (which is alternatively an exciting and terrifying idea). More than likely I’ll miss some important marketing strategy along the way. But it will all be practice for Book II of the series, right?

Here we go. Thanks for being along for the ride. And if any of you wants to be part of my book launch team do let me know in the comments below or by sending me an email. I’d love to have you on board!


*There is a section in the middle that I struggled with for a couple of weeks that I finally threw in the towel on and moved on, because I was going around and around in circles and getting nowhere fast. I’ll have to go back and fix that section. I hoped that when I moved on that when I got back to it, the problems that I was struggling with would magically resolve themselves while I was away. Heh. We’ll see.


Want to read more on my book and my writing process? Check out the links below:

What’s It All About, Then?

A Sign – a chapter from Wilding: Book One of The Traveller’s Path

Stuck In the Middle

Bechdel Blues

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions…

Revision, or, In the Trenches

The Final Push?

Featured photo by Serge Kutuzov on Unsplash

The Struggle is Real

I thought it might be time to update you all as to the progress of my book.

Just as a quick review, the last time I posted about this, back in February, I told you I hoped to have my revisions and edits done by mid-May. Seeing as I have hit that milestone, I thought I would report back as to how it’s going.

Well, I’m not done, but I’m not far off. I had a goal of revising 10,000 words a week. I wasn’t sure if I could hit that target, but you never know until you try, right? It’s been a challenging goal but in all honesty, it’s helped to have that target. It’s pushed me to keep going and to stick to my writing schedule, which has been hugely helpful.

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Right now, I have about 22,000 words left to edit. I should be able to get those done in the remaining couple weeks of May. So, I figure I will be done my edits by the end of the month. Which is only a couple weeks off of my stated goal, so I am going to give myself a pat on the back for that!

Another thing I have checked off my list of things to accomplish this spring was to start an author newsletter. To do this, I signed up to MailChimp and began to learn all about it, both in terms of the mechanics of how to do it as well as tips on what makes a good newsletter. This all takes so much more time than one thinks it might!

I found it hard to figure out some of the mechanics of MailChimp, especially how to link the sign-up form to the blog and to individual blog-posts, but I think I have it figured out now. If any of you have tried to sign up and have run into difficulty, please let me know by commenting below, or email me at lasnews@telus.net.

My next task after the edits are done is to sit down with the whole MS, read it over, and see what I have. One book? (pretty sure that won’t be the case). Two? Three? And then I have to figure out where to divide it up if I have more than one. And finally, I have to see if my editor’s advice to stick to one POV only is working.

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It’s been interesting. I have had to cut out a lot to keep the book to one POV. I can see where that advice has been good, for it has enabled me to focus more clearly on my main character’s story. But I do think that the book will likely have more than just that POV in it, once I make my final decisions. Some of that will depend on feedback from my beta readers, and some from my own instincts as to what I think works best. Stay tuned!

Assuming my edits are done by the end of the month, I will take the month of June to do my re-read and my final tweaks and decisions about how to structure the book, and then send it off to my beta readers. Once I get Book One, Wilding, nailed down, I will focus on it from now until launch in October. The rest of the MS I can set aside until after its launch, when I will immediately start the count-down to launch of Book 2.

The other task I have from now until the end of June is to get a book launch plan nailed down. I need to set a budget, and figure out all the steps I need to take along the way, and when to take them. I’ll probably also start the book cover design process, or at least researching options for that. I have made the decision that I will get a professional design done, as the cover is too important to scrimp on. Besides, I just couldn’t handle a cheesy design.

As I’ve been doing the edits and delving into the latter parts of my MS that I haven’t actually looked at for quite some time, I have felt a mixture of emotions.

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First of all, I’m continually surprised at how much I have learned as a writer. What I wrote a few years ago, that I thought was pretty good at the time, actually was pretty bad. Which makes me nervous. Is what I’m writing now, the changes I am making, also going to look equally as bad to me a few more years down the road? It tends to erode your self-confidence, let me tell you!

Conversely, I’m also surprised at how engaged I got in the story. After all, I know exactly what is going to happen! But I still got a great deal of pleasure in the story as I read it. There were even a few things I forgot, that I was excited to read again. I think it all works. I hope so, at any rate.

Don’t forget, if you want to keep up with my book’s journey to publication, please subscribe to my author newsletter. You’ll get first hand info there on my progress, plus a lot of other fun stuff that I think you will enjoy. Sign up at the link at the bottom of this post!


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Year of Reading Buechner: Brendan, A Novel

I have really been enjoying the non-fiction books I have read so far in my Year of Reading Buechner, but this month I turned my eye to one of Buechner’s fiction books. I have been eager to read Brendan: A Novel, for a couple of reasons. One, because a few years ago I read and really enjoyed Son of Laughter, his fictional account of the life of the Biblical patriarch, Jacob; and secondly, because this book was all about one of my favourite people from the Early Middle Ages: Brendan the Navigator.

Brendan

Brendan was published in 1987, and won the Christianity and Literature Belles Lettres Prize that year. As I mentioned, it is the fictional account of the life of the 6th century Irish saint, Brendan the Navigator, whose story of adventures and miracles encountered during a sea voyage with fellow monks was one of the most popular stories in medieval times.

The tale is told from the point of view of Finn, Brendan’s companion and best friend, and is set in a realistically dark and dirty sixth century Ireland. Brendan is no polished saint in this book, in fact far from it. Finn is a nominal Christian at best, and he casts a skeptical eye on some of Brendan’s tales, because he knows how much Brendan loves to embellish the truth. But there are times when Finn sees Bren performing a miracle himself, and is unable to explain away the occurrence except as a miracle.

There is a great tension in this book between truth and lies; faith and doubt. Brendan himself struggles between these dichotomies. He makes his way with great self-confidence at times, but at others he is racked by doubts. This novel does not allow you to think of him as a saint in the way we normally think of them, as people who are so advanced in holiness that they have left us behind in the dust.

I love the way Buechner portrays the people of sixth century Ireland in this book. They feel like real people. And I appreciate they way he shows how Christianity met and mixed with the old religions that the Irish Celts practiced.  Even Brendan himself, when sent to pray in a cave overnight as penance by the Abbot Jarlath, also turns to the Celtic god Dagda.

He knew it was the one and only true God he was supposed to call on for mercy but he thought it would do no harm to call on the Dagda as well. He only whispered his name in his heart instead of speaking it out loud though. The last thing in the world he wanted was for the Dagda to turn up there in the cave lugging his terrible great club and his brass cauldron. All the boy was after from him was a bit of luck. 

And when Brendan sets off on his voyage, he does so in order to reach Tir-na-nog, a kind of earthly Paradise, the land of the young, where the gods of the Irish Celts lived. It eventually morphed into the idea of the Otherworld, the land of the Elves. These tales  abounded in Celtic folklore, but it is not exactly a kosher concept from a Christian point of view.

But this was an age where the old beliefs were meeting head-on with the new, so this juxtaposition of pagan and Christian is very realistic for the times.The Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis (The Voyage of Saint Brendan the Navigator), the medieval manuscript that details Brendan’s voyage, says that Brendan was trying to reach the Promised Land of the Saints. The idea is of an earthly Paradise, such as the Garden of Eden. The stories of Tir-na-nog could certainly have been meshed with that idea, in the minds of Celts who are new to the faith. So I like this insertion into the book, although it is not strictly true to the stories of Brendan.

There is also quite a bit of comedy in this book. The “holy fool” is a theme you find often in Buechner’s writings, and in this book Brendan takes on that role. He is a braggart, full of wild tales and exaggerations; and odd-looking, with his mis-matched teeth, pointy head, and large derrière. He stumbles through this book, at times serenely performing miracles and at others cowering in unbelief and doubt. And so in this way Buechner makes a larger-than-life saint a person we can relate to.

Other characters also have their comedic moments. Finn himself is cheated out of going on Brendan’s first voyage because as they set sail a sudden squall comes up and he falls out of the boat, the others not noticing in the dark.

In the Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis (The Voyage of Saint Brendan the Navigator), the medieval manuscript that details Brendan’s voyage, the saint only takes one voyage, but in Buechner’s book, he divides it into two. Finn accompanies Brendan on the second voyage, and finds both miracles and heartache along the way. In the end, we are again left with uncertainty about exactly what they encountered, and where, and how much was truth, and how much exaggeration.

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An illustration from the Navigatio from a 14th century manuscript. It shows one of the stories in the tale, of Brendan and his monks staying on an island which they later discover is actually the great whale Jasconius. Image from Wikicommons.


Many of the other famous people from this time appear in this book, such as Saint Brigid, and Saint Malo. I particularly like the appearance of Gildas in this book, near the end, after Brendan is back from his voyages and goes away to Wales to escape his fame.  Gildas is a sour and bitter monk, which actually kind of fits the work for which he is best known today, called De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain), in which he details the many sins and failing of kings and churchmen alike.

As Finn says,

He spent his days in his hut with a quill in his hand scratching out on his parchment the nastiness of his times. 

But through Gildas, Brendan gets to meet the great king, Artor, an old man now, still serving as king at Caerlon. Brendan and Finn go to meet him, as Brendan wants to bring him God’s peace after he hears the tale of the betrayal of his queen Gwenhwyfar and the child Artor had with his half-sister. Finn doesn’t hear what Brendan says to Artor, but Artor is grateful for his visit. As they leave Caerlon, the small, wizened figure of the king stands at the battlements, his hands raised over his head in farewell.

Finn says,

I pictured him standing there all the rest of the day and the night as well with his arms in the air and his beard blowing. If I went back in a thousand years it wouldn’t surprise me to find him standing there yet if there’s anything left standing by then in the world. 

I love this picture of King Arthur, watching over Britain throughout the ages.

During a conversation with Gildas, as Brendan reflects on this voyages and expresses the fear that perhaps he had missed the point of what God had called him to do, it comes out in the conversation that the old monk only has one leg.

“I’m crippled as the dark world,” Gildas said.

“If it comes to that, which one of us isn’t, my dear?” Brendan said.

Gildas with but one leg.  Brendan sure he’d misspent his whole life entirely.  Me that had left my wife to follow him and buried our only boy.  The truth of what Brendan said stopped all our mouths.  We was cripples all of us.  For a moment or two there was no sound but the bees.

“To lend each other a hand when we’re falling,” Brendan said.  “Perhaps that’s the only work that matters in the end.”

This book comes at you sideways. It is a window into the life and times of Brendan, well-researched and imaginative. But it’s more than that, too. Brendan’s voyages, both physical and spiritual, mirror our own voyages through life, with their ups and downs, their triumphs and tragedies. The book contains many treasures, but not all of them are ones that you find along the surface. It forces you to dig deep and ponder a little bit. Not a bad thing, nowadays.

The New York Times Book Review called Brendan: A Novel, “Strikingly convincing…sinewy and lyrical.” I agree.  There is a lot that is earthy in this novel, but at times it will take your breath away. It reminds me a lot of Son of Laughter in that way.  It  took me a few chapters to get into it, but by the end I knew it was one I would have to read again.


Other posts in my Year of Reading Buechner series can be found here:

 2018 Reading Challenge: The Year of Reading Buechner

Year of Reading Buechner: The Remarkable Ordinary

Year of Reading Buechner: A Sacred Journey

 

 

The Final Push?

Occasionally I give updates on my book’s progress, and seeing as we have just barely started this new year, I thought it was a good time to let you know where I am at.

Just as a recap, I am in the process of writing a historical fantasy novel(s) set in 7th century Northumbria. I finally finished the first draft about 4-5 years ago…but soon realized that I had a problem. I had way too many words for one book. So I divided the MS up into three books and began work on revision of Book 1, rewriting and revising that book to make it work as a stand-alone, and beginning the process of looking for agents and submitting the MS to publishers.

I got some nibbles, but no “yes”, and began to look seriously at self-publishing. In the meantime, in 2016 I hired a professional editor to help me polish Book 1.

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Oh, this is SUCH a danger!!

I’m not going to lie, getting her suggestions back was painful! I knew I would need some more cuts, and was ready for that. But she suggested a lot more cuts, even to the point of making what I thought would be three books into one.

Hmm. Well, after I moped for a bit I picked myself up and looked critically at her suggestions, and began to try to implement them. Gone was the POV chapters of anyone but the main character. Out came the Save the Cat book and its suggestions for pacing. And hack, hack, hack, I did.

I began to see some improvements on the book, and was warming up to the editor’s ideas. But I had real doubts that I could actually compress the story into one book. Until I actually made the attempt, however, how would I know? So throughout last year I continued to revise the book/s.

However, an interesting thing happened last year. Through the course of my Year of Fun Reading, I read (by accident, not design) several Young Adult books. Now, I’m not a big fan of Young Adult books, just because I prefer books with a little more depth, both in characterization and in plot. And as I read these YA books, I began to get the feeling that what my editor was really trying to do was to turn my adult fantasy into a Young Adult book.

This is tricky. She did a good job on the edits, and I definitely appreciate her comments and suggestions. And I don’t want to make it sound like she was totally wrong in what she suggested to me. There was lots of draggy bits that needed help. And I needed to cut some of the extra POV chapters. But on the other hand…

I’m winding my way to the end of the revisions now. I’ve cut a lot out, and I’m reworking some plot details. Especially as I’m now at the end of the story, I’m hitting places that I haven’t really looked at since my first revision. There’s a lot that needs work.

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Definitely NOT recommended….

So. Where does that leave me?

Well, I have set up a revision schedule that has me revising 10,000 words per week. That’s a little ambitious, and I’m not sure if I’ll be able to do it, but I’m hopeful. If I can keep that schedule up I should be done my revisions by mid-May.

Then I have to take a long, hard look at what I have. One book? Two books? Probably not three, at this point. I will send it out to beta readers to get some feedback. I’m also considering sending at  Book 1 out for another professional edit, but I’m not sure about that, yet.

I’m starting to learn about book launches, and self-publishing, and how best to do all that. With that in mind, I am starting an author newsletter. All the advice out there to authors is that having your own email list is the best way to keep your readers engaged and to grow your base of readers. I will be launching this in the next couple months, so keep your eyes open!

I’ve been going back and forth on when I want to publish Book 1, tentatively called Wilding. Would it be better just before summer, or just after? Or should I try for December? What date gives me the best chance to realistically get everything in place before publication?

I finally settled on an answer. My book opens on Halloween night, so….why not target that day? Or sometime in October?

It feels right, so that is what I am aiming for. Here’s hoping I can get there! In the meantime, watch this space. I’ll keep you posted as I go. And yes, I know I have mentioned possible publication dates in the blog before, and those dates have come and gone. So sorry. All of this is a work in progress, and I’m learning as I go. For now, I’m holding to October 2018 sometime and working towards that.

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We’ll see how it goes. In the meantime, thanks to all who take the time to read my blog. Your support means more than you know!


Featured Photo by Nik MacMillan on Unsplash


 

Everything Means Something, or How To Think Like a 7th Century Celtic Christian

I’m off on a winter holiday, so I thought I would look back in the vaults again and share another post from my first year of blogging. It didn’t get a lot of looks, but it’s one I’m fond of!


I sat on my chair, reading, the afternoon sun pouring through the windows. My dog, a big goof of a Labrador/Newfoundland mix, came into the living room and I watched as he walked around the room, sniffing at things. I had to watch him carefully; at this stage in our lives together he was known to not stop at sniffing, but to take the next step of grabbing some treasure in the hopes of inducing a mad chase around the house as I attempted to get the treasure back. But no, he was content to wander and sniff this time, circling the coffee table a few times as he did so. I watched him carefully, seeing that he was circling the table counter-clockwise, and he did it three times, before settling down, and I thought about “widdershins” – circling counter-clockwise – and the number three. I wondered the deeper meaning of this, what sign could I read in it?  Three is the sign of the Trinity, true. The movements of Creation, in this case my dog, often held deeper meanings than the obvious, so why counter-clockwise? What did it all mean?

It was a brief thought, fleeting, only, and in the next split second I snapped back to my more modern-day mindset. But I treasure that small split-second, because it gave me just a tiny glimpse into the worldview of a Celtic Christian back in the 7th century.

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A Celtic Cross in Knock, Ireland. Photo from Wikicommons

At that point I had been studying the Celts and their unique take on Christianity for a couple of years, on and off, all part of my research for my Traveller’s Path trilogy. I had also started writing the book (which turned into three, and now maybe back into two), and had come smack up against one of the great difficulties of writing historical fiction: how do I, as a 21st century novelist, truly represent the worldview of a 7th century person?

The short answer is, I can’t. Not really. If you think about the gulf that exists between here and then, the changes in the world, the history that lies behind us which the 7th century people could not even imagine, it becomes pretty clear that to write with the “true” point of view of someone from that time and place is nearly impossible. However, I believe that this element of historical fiction is often where the “bad” is separated from the “good”, and the “good” from the “excellent”. When I finish a historical novel, do I feel like I have truly visited that time and place, or do I feel like the characters reacted in a far too “modern” fashion to the events of the day? Writers come their work with lots of ideas about religion, equality, wealth, democracy, etc that, for most people in most of the world’s history, would be utterly incomprehensible. If they are not careful, those ideas can leak through into a story in inappropriate places.

So what is a historical novelist to do? How do you step into the mind and worldview of a time so far removed from your own?

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Well, I don’t want to speak for all historical novelists, as I’m sure every one has a different method, but I can tell you what I did.

First of all, I cheated. Hah. I knew from the outset that I couldn’t do justice to the time and place in a way that I would be satisfied if I tried to make my POV character someone from that time. And besides, the type of novel I  love to read is the portal fantasy, in which a person from our time/place is somehow transported into another. Think of the Pevensies going through the Wardrobe, or even Harry Potter entering Hogwarts. So I decided that my main POV (point of view) character would be from our time, who, on Halloween, has an unfortunate encounter with demons and ends up in the 7th century.

This enabled me to write about the 7th century from a modern mindset, and allowed me to insert some explanations of events or culture that the person native to that time and place wouldn’t think twice about. And I could do that without too much difficulty or awkwardness in the narration.

After I got going, I did some writing from the POV of some of the characters in the book, just to help me get into their heads, so to speak. Some of those made it into the book, eventually. Hopefully they will “sound” realistic to the readers!

Secondly, research. Which goes without saying, of course. I found this fascinating, but also harder than I expected. For example, one of the best ways a historical novelist can learn about the mindset of people who actually lived in the time they are writing about is to read documents and letters actually written during that time period. There isn’t much of that available for 7th century Northumbria. This wasn’t an especially literate age. So while you can extrapolate a certain amount of things, in the end a lot of what the scholars have to say about the lives of ordinary people is speculation. So at times I felt like I was skating on thin ice as I wrote, but I consoled myself with the fact that, hey, this is fiction, after all, not a strict historical survey of the times.

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Well, yes, Google is helpful! But I promise I also did research that involved actual books…

Immersing myself into the people and times of the book, and imagining in fictional form what life was like from their point of view brought me to that day as I watched my dog wander around the living room.

The Celts practiced a polytheistic religion, worshipping many gods which controlled many different aspects of life, especially nature. When they converted to Christianity, this sensitivity to the natural world was enhanced, for now they recognized God Himself, the Creator, as being responsible for everything around them.The pagan Celts would see significance in the direction a crow would fly, so too would the Christian Celt, but in a slightly different way. God created all and directs all, they reasoned, and since God is a loving, intelligent, all-powerful Being, it is obvious that everything that happened was directed by Him to happen. Christians today still believe this of course, but the Celtic Christians took this very seriously. So, in their view, if my dog was circling around the table counter-clockwise three times, he was prompted by God to do so, and therefore there was divine significance in it, and if I would meditate on this, and prayerfully ponder it, the message might become clear.

To live as a Celtic Christian was to live in a world that was hyper-saturated with God’s presence, where the natural world was a form of revelation to us in a way we find hard to understand today. It takes a certain form of seeing which we dismiss now as superstitious, but in reality was far from it. As the title of this post say, basically Everything Means Something, and not just “something”, but in particular, Everything is a message from the God of Creation to us, if we would but have eyes to see and ears to hear.

Which is why, that day in my living room, when I got a tiny flash of what it would mean to live in a world like that, I was profoundly grateful. It was a very small link to some of my ancestors in the faith, and it gave me a glimpse of a world drenched in meaning and haunted with God’s presence in a way I hadn’t experienced before.

I don’t have the ability to stay in that world for too long. My mind has inherited the Enlightenment and the Age of Rationality and Materialism and all the other schools of thought between that time and our own.

But that’s why historical fiction is so much fun. For a short time we can leave our time behind and enter another one, and get a taste of what it was like “back then.” And for the writer, this is both a terrifying challenge and a deeply satisfying exercise, if your words come out just right.


Photo credit: Celtic Cross, St. Patrick’s, Drumbeg, by Albert Bridge

2017 Year of Fun Reading: Wrap Up!

All good things must come to an end. Before I head off bravely into a brand-spanking new year, I have to pause for a moment to say farewell to my last year’s reading challenge, the Year of Fun Reading.

This was a reading challenge that I found on the blog of Modern Mrs. Darcy (if you don’t listen to her What Should I Read Next? podcast, you should!). Each month I read a book that fit into the category she suggested, and, as the title suggested, it was actually a lot of fun.

To put my own spin on it, I tried to read books that fit into either speculative fiction or history, to complement my focus here on the blog.

As I went though the year I discovered authors I had never read before, which was great. I read good books, and not-so-good books, and rediscovered an old favourite. As I close up the series, I wanted to follow my previous pattern and do a wrap up of what I learned through this year of reading.

Just as a refresher, here are the categories, in order, and the books I read for each one. I didn’t do them all in the order that the “official” list suggested, and I borrowed one or two from the alternate list of “Reading for Growth” instead of “Reading for Fun”…which got me into a little trouble. I realized as I compiled my list I actually read two Books I was Excited to Read but Haven’t Read Yet because I has forgotten that I did this category at the beginning of the series instead of at the end, so I did it again. I also only read eleven books, not twelve, due to less time for reading that I thought I would have in the summer, and Way of Kings was a long book! Oops. Oh well.

Links included to each post, just in case you want to refresh your memory, or are visiting my blog for the first time (hi!).

January – Book I Chose for the Cover – Hot Lead, Cold Iron, by Ari Marmell

February – Book You Are Excited to Read or Borrow But Haven’t Read Yet – Queen of the Tearling, by Erika Johansen

March – Un-put-downable Book – Dark Matter, by Blake Crouch

April – Book Set in a Place You’ve Never Been But Would Like to Visit – Daughter of Smoke and Bone

May  – Book I’ve Already Read –  Book of the Dun Cow, by Walter Wangerin, Jr.

June – Book About Books or Reading – Ink and Bone (Great Library #1), by Rachel Caine

July – Book of Any Genre Addressing Current Events – Company Town, by Madeline Ashby

August/September – Book That Has More Than 600 Pages – Way of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson

October – Book Recommended by Someone With Great Taste – Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

November – Book in the Backlist of a New Favourite Author – The Forgotten Girl, by Rio Youers

December – Book You Were Excited to Buy or Borrow But Haven’t Read Yet – Kin of Cain, by Matthew Harffy

Without further ado, here’s my wrap-up of the 2017 Reading Challenge:

  1. The book I liked the least – Well, this was tricky. I didn’t hate any of the books, but unknownthere were a few that were definitely underwhelming. But, Queen of the Tearling has to be the one I enjoyed the least. The plot holes and thinly veiled hostility towards religion was just too much for me. Meh. A close runner-up would be Daughter of Ink and Bone. I actually gave that book two stars, and Queen I gave three, mainly because of the sexy angel element in Daughter. It’s plot is much tighter than Queen of the Tearling, though, so all in all Queen of the Tearling gets the dubious nod for the book I liked the least.

 

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2. Book I liked the best – in contrast, it was quite easy to pick the book I liked the best, even though there were strong contenders for this one. But far and away the book I enjoyed the most was The Book of the Dun Cow. I love so much about this book, from the writing, to the characters, to the plot, to the beauty of the story. I read it under the category of  The Book I’ve Already Read, and I’m so glad I did. I loved it way back when, and my appreciation for it has only deepened with time. Fantastic and highly recommended.

3. Book/s I wished I had written – It goes without saying that Book of the Dun Cow would

Unknown fall under this category also. I can only hope to ever write that well, and it’s the kind of book that hits me in all the right ways. But in surveying the other books on the list, I would have to say Way of Kings would be my second choice for the book I wish I had written.  I do love epic fantasy, and found the world-building and concepts explored here interesting. It’s a great feat to build a world and characters as ably as Sanderson does. But I would try to trim that beginning just a wee bit, if I were to do it. But, hey, he’s a multi-best-selling author and I’m just a wannabe, so what do I know anyway?

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4. Book/s I’m still thinking about  – again, Book of the Dun Cow. ‘Nuf said. But setting that one aside, I would have to say that the book that lingered with me the most was Dark Matter. Aside from being a terrific thriller and a fun read, it raised questions that lingered long after I finished it.

 

5. Book I was most disappointed in – the nod for this has to go to Company Unknown-2Town. I had high hopes for this one, and I really wanted to like it, but it just didn’t succeed in the ways that I wanted it to. Aspects of plot and characters were a bit too muddy, and the ending a little too out of left field. I want to support Canadian authors, and I was excited to read this one, which was picked as one of the Canada Reads books of 2017, but it just didn’t live up to my expectations of it. Bummer.

225x225bb6. Book that pleasantly surprised me – This was a pretty easy pick. I had been avoiding Ready Player One because I really dislike the “teen hero saves the world” plot, AKA Wesley Crusher. I haven’t read Ender’s Game, but I saw the movie and just couldn’t get into it because of that very reason. I figured that Ready Player One was just the same. But,my book guru recommended it, and as she and I have similar tastes in books, I gave it a try. And I liked it! Yes, perhaps the author got a bit carried away by the 1980s references and relied on them too much to carry the plot along, but, whatever. I found it a fun read. Really looking forward to what Spielberg is going to do with this on the big screen. If ever a book was made to be a movie, this one was!

7. Best writing – our of all the books I read this year for this challenge, there were three that stood out to me as having writing that is better than the rest:

  •   Book of the Dun Cow, by Walter Wangerin Jr. tops the list.  Wangerin’s poetic, yet5139RwDhQDL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_ simple style of writing here is a master class for writers. The voice of the book is distinct, with its folk-tale feel, and the reader falls under the story’s spell from the first page. But with the first introduction of Chauntecleer the Rooster and Mundo Cani Dog, you realize there is something more to this story than a simple children’s tale, depths which slowly unfurl along the way of the story’s slow telling. This book won the National Book Award for the U.S., and it is a deserving winner.
  • The Forgotten Girl, by Rio Youers. I fell in love with Youer’s writing when I read Weforgotten girlstlake Soul, one of the best books I’ve read in the last couple years and probably the one I have recommended to other people more than any other book recently. The Forgotten Girl didn’t have quite the same impact, but Youer’s skill in writing was still on display in this suspense thriller. I loved the way he wove a sweet love story into the midst of this story. I also love the portrayal of the main character and his father. Youers ability to write about love and relationships in more than just a superficial way is one I much admire, especially as he does it here in the midst of a super-charged plot. Very well done and a great read. Unknown
  • Way of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson. As I mentioned above, it’s not easy to create a whole new world and make it believable, but Sanderson does that here. Although I love big, long books, it’s been awhile since I’ve read any, just because I haven’t had the time. But this book reminded me why they are so much fun. Even though the beginning was a bit tough to get into, once I did I thoroughly enjoyed it. Now I understand why Sanderson is so very much admired for his epic fantasies!

All in all, I really enjoyed this year’s Year of Fun Reading. Thank you to Ann Bogel, the Modern Mrs. Darcy herself, who inspired this challenge. If any of you are wanting to do something similar, she has her new challenge for 2018 up on her blog right now.

However, I’m going to do something different for 2018. Come back next week for the reveal of my new Reading Challenge for the New Year!