An Epiphany, a Revelation, a Holy Mackerel! Moment

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I can barely contain my excitement. I had a huge breakthrough with the book this morning that has literally changed everything, my entire perspective, and approach to writing it. I’ve been feeling a tiny bit “stuck” – there was something missing and it was hampering my progress. I am discovering that writing is like putting a puzzle together – at first there are bits and pieces scattered all over the place and you have no idea where to put anything. So you just start with one and focus on finding a fit for that piece and so on until you begin to see the bigger picture.

In this case, it had been (sort of) staring me in the face the entire time – aren’t the most obvious answers usually right there? We are either not ready to receive the message or refuse to. It was a character, or rather family, that was going to play a role in the book anyway, but I’ve realized that role is primary and not secondary. I am writing about them as well as the Lorrha Missal; the history of the book and their history intersects in a really interesting way. This is their story and their story in a broad period of Irish history.  It took several months and a whole lot of fumbling around to realize that this is what these books will be about. And, yes, I can’t tell this story in one book, so it will be more than one. It’s just too long – the period of time I am writing about covers 1,000 years. Unless I can pull off a Virginia Woolf Orlando-type device, it can’t be just one book. I’m still writing about monastic Ireland, Vikings, and illuminated manuscripts, but the lens through which the story will be told has changed and will continue beyond the 9th century. I had wanted to see through the story of the Lorrha Missal all the way to its return to Ireland in the 19th century and I think I have finally found a plausible way to do that and also fulfill my desire to write more about Irish history.

Now rather than having these amorphous shapes that are wandering around in my mind trying to talk to me, they are becoming more fully formed. Having had this epiphany will make my visit to the Burns Library next week all the more productive. Now back to work!

 

 

On Internet Stalkers and Unsuspecting Historians

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I’ve wanted to write about medieval Ireland and illuminated manuscripts for several years and there have been many stops and starts along the way. In October/November, I finally decided that I had to let the idea go. It wasn’t going anywhere and I had tried every angle. As difficult as it was, I decided to put it aside for the moment and start working on something else. I had always found my grandmother’s emigration from Ireland interesting and thought there might be a fictional story I could expound upon. Literally, the day after I had shelved my illuminated manuscripts idea and was tinkering around on the Internet for research, I came across an article in a journal called History Ireland. The article was reviewing a new book about the Book of Kells and opened my eyes to some unknown (to me) possibilities. The wheels started turning and I was back on it, this time chasing down an entirely new storyline. It was the Stowe Missal (see cover photo on Facebook page) and its ties to Tipperary and the town of Lorrha and St. Ruadhan’s Abbey were immediately apparent. Before I really quite knew what I was doing, I had contacted the LorrhaDorrha Historical Society to get a copy of their historical journal and for suggestions and ideas. They have been an amazing resource and have pointed me in the direction of several leads I hadn’t considered, given me book recommendations, patiently answered questions, and generally did not ban me for Internet stalking. I realized I could no longer hound this poor man and must set myself upon some other unsuspecting historian. Which brings me to my lovely sister who is an amazing artist and works at Boston College. BC’s Burns Library specializes in old books and manuscripts, and BC has an Irish studies program. Right here in my own backyard! Well, not entirely. It’s closer to my sister’s backyard. She kindly introduced me to the library’s conservator, who introduced me to their Irish studies librarian, and I will be getting to meet with them very soon. My hope is to find some useful books that are out of print and/or unable to be found in this country. And generally, I would to hear any suggestions they might have for me, because well, what have I gotten myself into? This isn’t an admission of defeat – I’ve been casually reading about this for a few years now; not entirely blind! But it is a daunting task. I almost want to have that screen that Iron Man has where he can move images around, pull things up off the internet, throw it aside….I have to re-create the world, but inside my own mind. While this was an actual historical place with actual events, I need to be able to see the world inside my head as I would if I were myself reading it. I need to see the crannog where my protagonist was born, I need to look inside the monk’s cell, I need the wooden bowl and spoon he used. It’s a totally different world, and I need to get inside it.

And I hope to narrow down my focus in my research as well as here. This entire project has been a leap – I literally jumped and am figuring it out on the way down. So the Facebook page, even the blog, while clearly I’ve tried to gear the content toward medieval Ireland, or Ireland at the very least, it’s been scattered. I’m going to really try and rein it in and make it a bit more purposeful and organized/relevant. Initially I started writing this blog as much for myself – to plunk some research bits in, work it out as I write, give myself some focus and guaranteed writing time. I’m using it as a tool – and I hope you enjoy it, the topic and the process.

The Conflicts of the Human Heart

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In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, William Faulkner said: “The young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself, which can alone make good writing, because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and sweat.” At the core of every story, whether it is one of Faulkner’s novels or the story of our own lives, is the conflict that lies within us. At its most base, this is the conflict of good vs. evil – the choice between right and wrong, divine and carnal. Conflict makes or breaks the story – and the character, for if they had nothing to overcome, why would we be reading it?

Faulkner goes on to say: “He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and teaching himself that, forget it forever…”

If fear is one of our most base emotions, I would argue that love is the other, and that love, in and of itself, is inherently fearful. The fear not to be loved, or to love and not be loved in return. So, fear and love together is a potent combination. It’s probably safe to say that fear was pervasive in early medieval life. Love may be a more difficult theme for me to write about. I don’t like romance, and I really dislike when a love story seems wedged into what otherwise is a great narrative (and this happens quite often in historical fiction). It’s always tied up neatly and “happily every after” at the end, and while this is satisfying for the reader, I find it annoying and predictable. I suspect this may be at the urging of editors and publishers for a more saleable novel, and I understand that.

If love itself is fearful, it is also rife with conflict. While Faulkner’s quote is clearly quite broad and not limited to the notion of love as an emotion, when I read “conflicts of the human heart,” I immediately think of romantic love and its attendant complications. The most fascinating love story to me is the one that can never be – two people may love each other, but because of timing, circumstances, or the limits of life itself, and I mean death, they will never be able to experience or even express it. It is not the pain that is fascinating to me but rather that factors surrounding the unrequited couple. There’s certainly a literary legacy that backs me up – Romeo and Juliet certainly springs to mind, but also in Irish literature and folklore, there seems to be quite a bit of tragic and unresolved love.

In the mythological tale of Diarmuid and Grainne, Grainne is engaged to be married to the hero Fionn MacCumnaill, a man older even than her father. She falls in love instead with one of his warriors, the young and handsome Diarmuid, and runs away with him. They spend some years running away from Fionn, until a sort of peace is reached. Diarmuid joins a boar hunt near Ben Bulbin in Co. Sligo, where he is wounded while slaying the boar. Fionn, who is also on the hunt, has the power to save him by letting him drink water from his hands, but lets the water slip through his fingers -twice-and Diarmuid dies. Grainne is so grieved by his loss that she dies of a broken heart.

There’s such a great deal of conflict surrounding Grainne and Diarmuid’s love story that without it, there would be no story. Otherwise, they might settle into the shadow of Ben Bulben and have a passel of kids and pass unnoticed into eternity.

And so I will try to honor Faulkner’s advice: “…leaving no room in his workshop but the old verities and truths of the heart, the universal truths…love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.”

 

 

 

On Writing Muscles, Ring forts, and Research

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While I have always been employed as a “writer” in some capacity, and studied English in college, you could say I feel pretty comfortable with writing. Writing fiction, I am discovering, is a whole new ball game, which is probably why I have done my best to avoid this vehicle. But, since my present idea has been running around in my brain for a few years and isn’t leaving me alone, I am writing this book in part to put it to rest. So I’m still a newbie at fiction: I’ve written short stories, I’ve written bits and pieces, but never an entire novel. If a novel is 100,000 words (thereabouts), I have some ways to go. Writing is like a muscle. When you first start exercising, you can barely get your butt out of bed to actually do it, and when you do, you’re out of breath, you hurt, and you’re sore afterwards. However, if you keep at it, gradually your muscles get stronger, it’s not so hard to get out of bed, you’re not as out of breath, and then pretty soon, you’re enjoying it. Okay, I’m not entirely sure I will ever be lovin’ the process, but I am thinking that with practice and repetitive action, it might not be so halting and excruciating. I wrote this morning and I think I maybe wrote 400 words in a half hour. So here’s to writing exercise.

Speaking of this morning’s session, I’m writing about my main character being fostered into a monastery and leaving his home at a young age. Getting into the nitty gritty now, I need details about how people actually lived during that time and a good start would be their houses and where they lived.

Among the wealthier classes, people lived in ringforts, homesteads enclosed by a fence or wall. Within the enclosure were small round houses where people lived as well as enclosures for animals. Some ringforts even had something called a souterrain, underground chambers used for storage or shelter from attack. There were different types of ringforts: a rath was earthen, a caiseal was stone, and a dún was a ringfort of special importance for leaders or kings. On the Aran Islands at Inishmore, Dún Aengus was one such type of fort.

Ringfort
image source: Irish National Heritage Park, http://www.inhp.com

I shared this image on my Facebook writer page this morning because the Heritage Park has a program where you can actually stay overnight in one of these ringforts and experience life in the medieval period. I’m intrigued by the idea – that would be some seriously dedicated research for my book!

As you can imagine, I could probably go down the rabbit hole of research with this book and I have to be careful not to get lost in the details. While it is certainly important to capture the essence of life and I can’t do that 100% since I am neither a resident of that time nor do I have a PhD in history or archaeology, ultimately it is the story that is important and the journey of a character is a timeless experience.

“The Cave You Fear to Enter Holds the Treasure You Seek:” The Hero’s Journey

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“The first stage of the mythological journey…signified that destiny has summoned the hero and transferred his spiritual center of gravity from the within the pale of his society to a zone unknown.”
The Hero with a Thousand Faces, (1949), Joseph Campbell

You may never have heard of Joseph Campbell, but you are likely familiar with the cadence of his work. The Hero’s Journey provides a framework for every mythological tale ever created by mankind. It even applies to contemporary literature: JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings follow this outline.

This short video from TED Ed has a wonderful, brief explanation:

What does this have to do with medieval Ireland? You might also ask what this has to do with us, but they are one and the same. This idea of monomyth translates across time and culture. From the Odyssey to the story of Siddartha Gautama, to Frodo Baggins and Harry Potter, it applies to all of us. You might even say that we carry the myth inside each one of us, and as storytellers in our own right, re-create the hero’s journey in our day-to-day lives.

Why could a monk be relatable to a 21st century man or woman? The human experience, at its core, doesn’t really change. We have changed the world around us, but the qualities that make us human – and that is evident in the stories we tell – are the same. I am him and he is me.

The 40,000 Words/40 Days Challenge

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I am sneaking in some writing before my son gets off the bus and the baby wakes up. I set myself a goal for Lent – not to give something up (like a good Catholic), but to add something, that is, to write 40,000 words in 40 days. That sounds like a lot, but 1,000 words a day sounds a lot less frightening. So – Lent started last Wendesday. How am I doing? The first day went swimmingly as I dove in and wrote about Vikings (that seems to come easily to me, maybe my novel should be about big blond brutes). And then it all went downhill. Saturday was terrible. I took two hours in the middle of the day and I think I wrote two paragraphs. Writing historical fiction about a period of time so far in the past has its benefits and challenges – I have some liberty to make things up as the historical record is not ironclad. But there are some things we do know, or historians know, and I’d like to be as accurate as possible. My tendency towards perfectionism bogged me down completely. Did they ride horses or use carts? Was there a wall around the monastery? How long would the journey from their home to the monastery have taken? How would they have eaten, slept – would they have slept outdoors or be taken in somewhere? I felt like my lack of knowledge prevented me from writing any narrative at all. Or, should I say, those lovely little roadblocks I use as excuses.

And so, despite a bad weekend, I’m going to forge on. I’m going to write the 40,000 words over Lent, for Chrissakes (literally). I am actually tired of myself complaining about not writing. I think I have reached the point where the pain of not writing outweighs the pain of actually writing. There’s some noble quote about that from someone famous but I have neither the time nor the inclination to go looking for it.

A writer friend (she shall remain nameless to protect the innocent) and I were discussing what books sell well and why. Looking at Amazon, 50 Shades of Grey and its ilk do quite well. I suggested we should both throw up a couple of self-published steamy romances on Amazon and see what happens. I told her she could use my name as a pseudonym as long as I got 30% of the profit. So, if you see me tooling around in a BMW, you’ll know my secret…..

The Creation of Illuminated Manuscripts

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Illuminated manuscripts required a great deal of resources, manpower, and time to create. Since the printing press was hundreds of years from being invented, all books had to be created by hand; copies were painstakingly reproduced. That’s the wonder of these books; not only that they were made at all, but the skill with which they were made, and their beauty.

Illuminated manuscripts in Ireland were typically written on vellum, or prepared calfskin. The skin would need to be immersed in lime and the hairs removed with a knife. It was then pulled taut on a frame and scraped again to make it smooth. The skin was allowed to dry and cut into pages. This is a very condensed description of a long process that required multiple soakings, scrapings, and dryings. To give a sense of the resources required, the Book of Kells has 680 pages or 340 leaves of vellum and required the skins of 185 calves.

Once the vellum was ready for writing, the pages were lined. Writing instruments included goose quills and reeds and the inks used to write the manuscript were made from soot and plant extracts mixed with gum and water. The rich colors came from a variety of sources. Red and orange came from lead, green from copper, white from chalk, some blues from indigo plants and some blues from the stone lapis lazuli, which at this period in history, could only be sourced from Afghanistan.

The role of scribe in medieval Ireland was one of considerable importance. For example, MacRegol, abbot of the monastery Birr, was first identified as a scribe and abbot second. Sometimes the scribe would also be the artist and sometimes they were separate roles. There might be more than one scribe or artist working on a manuscript, depending on the size and complexity. For example, a large book such as the Book of Kells could have taken years to make, and in fact, it is an unfinished manuscript. The speed at which these books were created could depend greatly on the weather – humidity, amount of light all had a great effect on production.

Understanding a little more about the production of these manuscripts, then, and looking at the detail of the page of the Book of Kells below, the artistic capability and willingness to persevere of these monks is all the more amazing. They sought beauty and redemption through the Word of God. 1200 years ago and more, people saw beyond the reality of their existence; their belief in God and eternal life is the lens through which we must view their work.

Book of Kells St. John

The Shrine of the Lorrha Missal

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A cumdach is a shrine meant to hold books of importance. They were usually made years after the actual manuscript itself, when they had gained enough importance as a result of their relation to a saint. Unfortunately, not many survive – they were often plundered for their precious metals and stones, by (guess who??) the Vikings. The cumdach for the Lorrha (Stowe) missal does survive because both the shrine and book were found in the wall of Lackeen Castle in 1735 by John O’Kennedy, the ancestral owner. The cumdach was first made in the early 11th century, about 200 years after the missal itself, then refurbished sometime before 1381. The shrine is at the National Museum of Ireland, while the manuscript is at the Royal Irish Academy.

Stowe Missal shrine

There is No Next Time

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Sometimes people say, “Why are you writing now?” or “How do you find the time?” The short answer is I have to create it. I have to lose sleep and I have to give the four kids to my husband on the weekends, and I have to get babysitting help. NOT writing was causing me to lose my mind. I get incredibly irritable if I haven’t written in awhile and I’m not even talking about a short story or a journal entry. I even feel better when I am writing financial commentary. I live in my mind and I communicate better through writing, so maybe that’s why.

The long answer is I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. As a child, I wrote to the children’s author, Beverly Cleary, asking how I could get published. I always had my nose in a book and I spent hours at the library. If I got money for a good report card, I would spend it on books. But really, I didn’t think I could write a novel. I thought I could write in a number of other ways: as an English major in college, as a financial writer after school, maybe even a food columnist in a newspaper? But a novel? Creative writing? I didn’t think I was talented enough, or enough of a storyteller. When you believe you’re not enough, you’re not.

I think what finally did it for me was a series of crises in my life that made me realize that life is short, you’re not in control, and shit is going to happen. Bad shit is going to happen. I remember sitting in the human resources office the day I was laid off. They were explaining my severance package. All I could think was, I’m going to write that book. I didn’t know what “that book” was then, but it was going to happen. If you’ve ever been fired or laid off, it’s a terrible feeling. A friend likened it to someone breaking off a romantic relationship with you. You are no longer wanted, or needed. Good bye. For someone who took pride in her work and maybe identified a little too closely with her job, that was a blow. I had a toddler and an infant at home, and I was pregnant again.

My mother died before she could know my children. My father died not knowing who I was anymore. My mother died suddenly and unexpectedly. There are so many questions I never got to ask my mother and now as a mother myself, I appreciate the immense sacrifices she made. She had seven children. I have four. I can’t whine too much. I regret that time she asked me to come to dinner just before she died and I declined. I was tired, I had a newborn. Next time. There are no next times, there is only now. I have her wedding ring. The inside is inscribed with her initials and my father’s and their wedding date. 11-11-55. I wear it on my right hand. I have very small fingers; we wear the same size, apparently. I am my mother’s daughter in many ways. I remember as a child knowing that my parents would die sooner than my friends’. They were older when I was born. My father didn’t think he would live to see me graduate from high school, which I thought was funny. He was 70 when I graduated from high school. Old enough to be my grandfather, sure, but not ancient.

My dad had to go into a nursing home when I was pregnant with my first child. His dementia was accelerating and he needed more care. I remember one time my husband and I spent the night at their house to make sure he didn’t wander or fall. The next morning, he woke up and was completely lucid, his old self, joking with us. I took him to Dunkin’ Donuts and over the course of the drive there and back, he slipped away again. It was like he was behind a veil, there, but blurry and indistinct.

So why now? I’ve begun to make choices in my life based on how I will feel at the end of my life. Is it going to matter? The things I regret now at 36 are the things I haven’t done, the questions I haven’t asked, the trips I haven’t taken. I don’t really regret what I have done. But I look back and say, “Why didn’t I go have a mudslide with my mother at happy hour, packed up my 2 month older sleeping infant, and let her show him off to all her friends?”  Why didn’t I tell my dad more often how much I loved my childhood with him? Our trips to the Plaza, to Burger King, when I reported his lottery numbers to him each night? I stayed away because I was afraid; afraid to face the fact that he was slipping away.

So, I write for the self on the verge of this life and the next. To me, it doesn’t matter if I publish this book.  But it will matter to me if I don’t write it. I told Lachlan I was writing a book and he said, “is it for me?” Yes. It’s for him, for mom, for dad. And for no regrets.

Finding Light in the Darkness

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The poem Pangur Ban, which is excerpted below, is a circa 9th century poem found in a manuscript written by a monk in Old Irish.

‘Tis a merry thing to see
At our tasks how glad are we,
When at home we sit and find
Entertainment to our mind.

Oftentimes a mouse will stray
In the hero Pangur’s way:
Oftentimes my keen thought set
Takes a meaning in its net.

‘Gainst the wall he sets his eye
Full and fierce and sharp and sly;
‘Gainst the wall of knowledge I
All my little wisdom try.

When a mouse darts from its den,
O how glad is Pangur then!
O what gladness do I prove
When I solve the doubts I love!

So in peace our tasks we ply,
Pangur Bán, my cat, and I;
In our arts we find our bliss,
I have mine and he has his.

Practice every day has made
Pangur perfect in his trade;
I get wisdom day and night
Turning darkness into light.
(translated by Robin Flower)

It’s the last line of the poem that gets my attention: “turning darkness into light.” The writer of the poem clearly takes joy in his work, as does his cat, Pangur. (“ban” means “white” in Irish). By copying his texts, he learns and gains wisdom and is enlightened. For Christians, that wisdom and that light is the Word of God. Without God, there is only darkness. Let’s get all Biblical for a moment (ahem) and clean off that dusty tome. The Gospel of John has several references to light:

John 8: 12 “Again, Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

John 1: 4-5 “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness shall not overcome it.”

As a writer of fiction, not as an historian or theologian, neither of which I can pretend to be, the theme of lightness versus darkness is compelling. Newgrange, which is a 5,000 year old passage tomb located in the Boyne Valley in Ireland, was constructed so that around December 21 (the shortest day of the year and the winter solstice) at sunrise, light begins to fill the passage until the entire room is illuminated. To people living then, their lives were built around the ebb and flow of the seasons. December 21 is a turning point, where the days begin to lengthen, bringing the eventuality of growth, light, and more available food sources. So why wouldn’t Christianity, with its references to the God as light and the Word as light, be appealing? A more spiritual than the practical application of the past, perhaps. This is a vastly oversimplified interpretation of the acceptance of Christianity into Ireland, but I can’t help but wonder, could it have been viewed this way? A monk leans over his work, with a candle to see by, and begins to decorate a page of Gospel text. To honor the Word of God, he adds illustration to the first letter on the page. Animals begin to crawl around the margins, and celtic knots entwine the words with their unending designs. Colors such as red, gold, and blue are added, and finally the Word, whom they believe to be Jesus or God, begins to glow, or illuminate from the page. Darkness becomes light.

book of kells
(both images from the Book of Kells, Trinity College Library, Dublin)