Medieval Musings

At the end of November I’ll be attending a science fiction convention–I’m on a committee that makes an award for the best book by a writer in the region.  I’ll also be serving on panels that deal with portrayal of the Middle Ages in fantasy and science fiction–why it happens so often and whether that’s a good or a bad thing.  So I raise the question here as well.

Fantasy and science fiction writers have a wide-open choice of the kinds of societies they set their stories in.  That being so, why choose feudalism?

One answer may simply be that earlier writers than George R.R. Martin made that choice successfully, so there are bound to be emulators.  True.  Less simply, why feudalism rather than representative democracy or Chinese-style imperialism?  Relatively few American writers know enough of Chinese history to imitate it in the detail a novelist needs, but we wallow (how many Republican candidates?) in U.S. democracy.  I’d be happy to read a good literary experiment with democracy on Venus, or with mandarins on Mars.

Fantasy writers are not limited by the need to create an illusion of mundanity that traps science fiction writers in the laws of physics.  So what’s with the redundant dukes and barons and bubble-gum pink princesses who show up in fantasy, never mind werewolves and wizards and faery folk flittering through the air?  Fantasists could portray the love life of intelligent iguanas.  But no.  They do the European aristocracy circa 1250.

I wouldn’t want to live in medieval Europe myself, but I have to admit there are positive elements in the culture.  It’s a remarkably colorful society.  Even the religion is color-coded.  The liturgical season determines the color of the priest’s outer vestments, Pentecost being emerald green and Easter white.  Coding the powerful cardinals red strikes me as a brilliant piece of ecclesiastical advertising.  The church, in fact, is a patron of the arts in a way that makes modern supporters of the arts look like pikers.  I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to suggest that the Protestant reformation was a reaction against ecclesiastical art and architecture.

Medieval law was almost as ornate as ecclesiastical art, paradise for lawyers.  When I first read the Paston Letters I was shocked at how litigious the family was.  The letters are admittedly late medieval, but there’s every reason to believe the Pastons’ enthusiastic pursuit of lawsuits was a long-established obsession.  And how much fun to figure out which laws to suit.  Canon law reigned throughout western Europe, and dealt with marriage and the transmission of property, sacred matters as we all know.  Civil law differed from kingdom to kingdom and was both a matter of decree and a matter of custom.  In Ireland, only half-conquered in the Middle Ages, Irish law had an elaborate and interesting system of fining culprits for felonies, whereas English law used imprisonment and/or torture as punishment.  You would want to be careful in which county you committed a crime.

I see I’ve allowed myself to be sucked into the subject.  It might be possible to conclude that feudalism draws writers in by providing built-in plot lines, no matter what events and personalities the writer creates for the story.

The Funeral Baked Meats

Sorry this is late.

In a novel I’ve been working on lately, I found myself looking for gatherings that could be used to introduce and/or develop a bunch of characters in one scene.  I get tired of reading narrative fiction iin which only two or three characters develop to the point of being interesting people.  Still, side plot can interrupt and slow the pace of a story.  I opened my most recent mystery with the hero and heroine having dinner in a restaurant without even the interference of a waiter.  With a busier setting I could have brought half a dozen characters onstage at once.  Far more interesting.

With mysteries, half a dozen scenes are almost obligatory.  For instance, the interrogation of a major suspect by (usually) two investigators, or the autopsy with its gruesome narrative and sick jokes, the come-all-ye scene near the end when all the suspects are gathered together in a room and the solution to the crime is revealed.  Those scenes almost narrate themselves, but, for the rest of the story, it can be difficult to find situations where the array of suspects and bystanders will interact sufficiently to create the imaginary community that serves as the setting for the crime.

A French film I saw recently, Barbecue, deals with multiple friendships with wit and charm.  A game of boule involving most of the friends becomes a vivid metaphor from emotional shots they take at each other, but the best development of all the characters occurs at meals.  The serving of a strip of rare beef and the pouring of a glass of sangria assume and underline emotional meaning in a way that words alone cannot.

When I think back on the mysteries I’ve written, some of the best character development and, oddly, the best action came in a memorial service, a ride on a crowded subway car, a picnic interrupted by a killer, and a funeral meal, group scenes all of them.  While the funeral baked meats didn’t actually furnish forth a marriage feast, I did manage to present a bevy of folks revealing their true colors under ritualized stress.

Disarming a Plot

I’ve now had a couple of weeks to absorb the meaning (or, more likely, the meanings) of the recent high speed adventure aboard a train bound from Amsterdam to Paris via Belgium.  Just when I think I understand this truly strange happening, another fact pops up, and I have to back off and redefine everything.  No.  It’s not tragedy, not even melodrama.  It’s comedy.  Three young Americans and a sixtyish Brit are awarded the Legion of Honor for saving the lives of scores of passengers, and critics point out, their lips curling, that the young men didn’t wear suits to the award ceremony.

Since I write mysteries, I tend to view news stories as plot sources, and this one seems made to be dramatized.  Consider the cast.  Think of The Bridge of San Luis Rey or Murder on the Orient Express.  Here we have twenty or so people thrown together at random, some boarding in Amsterdam, others in Belgium.  Six of them (counting the gunman) have names and faces in the press version of their story, but a good fiction writer would develop others.  The wife of the man who was the first to be injured, for instance.  He tried to protect her and their children, almost at the cost of his life.  What was she doing?  Were the children screaming?  How many children were there?  Were there others in the carriage?  What about other people aboard?  Early versions of the story reported negative comments about train personnel doing nothing, indeed leaving the scene.  Was that really so, or were they going for help?  The train was rerouted very quickly.

But even without expanding the dramatis personae, a writer would have rich material for characterization.  Chris Norman, the Englishman who helped overpower the gunman, is quoted as saying that he thought he was probably going to die anyway, so he might as well try to do something useful.  That struck me as excellent psychology and may well have expressed what the three American kids felt too, though they were also observing the man with the AK47 intently, and they pounced on him as soon as his rifle jammed.

The three young men (I keep wanting to say boys, but men is the right word) are a wonderful variety of American personalities and they worked brilliantly as a team.  Stone took on the terrorist directly and suffered the consequences.  His thumb was almost severed, but he kept on coming, and Skarlatos grabbed the rifle, using it to whop the terrorist repeatedly on the head.  Sadler, when the prisoner was secured, went to the next carriage to reassure the passengers that the situation was under control–and to find a first aid kit and blankets for the man who was injured trying to protect his family.

Stone, meanwhile, despite his own serious injury, stuck his hand in the wounded man’s throat and closed the left carotid artery.  He held the wound shut for what must have been twenty interminable minutes, until the train pulled into Arras and medics came to relieve him.  It does not at all diminish his heroism to know that his job in the Air Force is as an ambulance services technician.  It’s one thing to know what to do and quite another to do it.

Well, that’s it, that’s the story.  Right?  Actually, that story will go right on happening in the minds (and nightmares) of the people in the train carriage.  And there is no way that a writer of fiction such as myself can use it.  Why?  Because nobody would believe it.

Apocalypse Wow

For no discernible reason, news reporting has taken on an exaggerated tone this summer–more exaggerated than usual, I mean.  The potential for earthquakes in the Pacific Northwest, one of the many Kardashian baby bumps, a Jenner’s transition from Bruce to Caitlyn, the Pluto fly-by, discovery of airplane wreckage in the sea off Reunion, volcanic eruptions here and there, and final filming of Downton Abbey are all discussed (and headlined) with a blare of trumpets and a rumble of kettle drums.  The Sky is Falling!  Obama is Invading Texas and the POWs will be Stashed at Walmart!!  Donald Trump is Running for President!!!

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Journalistic bombast affects not just the language used in reporting but the narrative structure of the story, and the choice of which stories to report and which to pass by.  I think the viewers or readers feed on it–certainly they internalize it, so that that they yearn for something spectacular in every story.  Nice isn’t enough.  Insanely nice is what we all want.  And if what we crave is negative, a single genteel murder is not magnetic enough, not awful in the sense of awesome.  What we want is serial killings, all of them lasciviously gruesome.

I suppose this craving for super-triumph and mega-disaster flows in both directions.  Post-holocaust science fiction and Vlad-the-Impaler-style fantasy can generate a desire for sensation in journalism and history.  Naive readers complain that news servers never tell pleasant tales about kindly innocent folks helping each other.  Actually, they do.  Sometimes they speak calmly of a medical breakthrough or a technological leap.  Occasionally they even report on change that is just change, neither breakthrough nor leap.  All too often, though, stories like that are swamped by others that supply boom and bang, and blood, lots of blood.

I’ve taken a bunch of history classes in my day and taught some.  Nothing is more depressing than to find students wanting yet another recap of the invasion of Normandy or the battle of Gettysburg.  As appalling as the First World War was, it was not one-sixteenth as important in human history as the domestication of corn.  We love to read about the fall of Rome.  The foundation of the first human village was a lot more noteworthy–but not spectacular.

I think I’m burning out on what makes the world dramatic.  If I do, I’ll have one heck of a time writing appealing fiction.

Happy Force of July

Independence Day, coming up on Saturday, used to be my favorite holiday.  This year I’m not so sure I love it.  As always with so-called holy-days, commercial exploitation is an annoyance.  A Yahoo News headline this morning jumped out at me:  “Where to Find a New Car Bargain on the Fourth of July.”  Forget shopping.  Go eat some potato salad and think patriotic thoughts.

I had a patriotic upbringing.  My father had been a naval officer, serving in the Pacific on a baby aircraft carrier.  After the war, he taught high school.  He was also the high school music director.  Every Fourth he would dress up in his handsome uniform and take me and my brother John with him to the cemetery.  After the designated minister had conducted a brief memorial service for local men killed in the world wars and Korea, my father took out his silver trumpet and played Taps.  When I think of patriotism I think of Dad and his trumpet.  The ship he served on was built in the town I now live in, down on the Columbia River.  It was hit by a kamikaze.

This year I am looking at a Fourth of July in which patriotic southerners are going to rally in defense of the Confederate battle flag, the flag of the army of Northern Virginia.  Excuse me, did I miss something here?  Some years back, 1861 I believe, a war broke out in this country.  According to the media, some folks down below the Mason Dixon Line are now calling it the War of Northern Aggression.  It was called the War between the States too, for a while, back about the time references to slavery and Jim Crow were being removed from high school textbooks so the books could be sold in Texas.

The war with three names was, in fact, a civil war, “where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.”  It was fought between people who wanted to abolish slavery in the United States and people who wanted to continue to buy and sell human beings, specifically African-American human beings.  The”aggression” occurred when South Carolina troops fired on Fort Sumpter, a federal fort.  And the war was not between states, not Louisiana versus Kentucky, for example.  It was between the government of the United States and states that seceded from the Union in order to be able to continue practicing slavery.

This was partly a straightforward economic issue.  Southern plantation owners were not paying their workers, so they could undersell farmers in the north who did pay their workers.  However, it was also a moral issue.  Many people in the northern and western states thought that slavery was wrong.  “John Brown’s body lies a-moldering in the grave,” but the truth he died for goes marching on.

I am glad southerners like their states.  I’m glad they like their barbecue and their churches.  But I think it’s time and past time to point out that the Civil War is a done deed, that the north won, and that honoring the battle flag of the Ku Klux Klan is just plain despicable, especially on the Fourth of July.

Whew!  I’m glad that’s over.  We have a lot to be glad about right now, including Pope Francis.  The Supreme Court (of the United States) has upheld marriage equality and medical coverage for millions.  We’re doing a lot of things right, even down south.  And, while I’m not going to whistle “Dixie,” I won’t sing “Marching through Georgia,” either.


Plausible Places

In fiction, a major goal of naming is not to confuse the reader.  It may be cute to name all the kids in the family something beginning with J.  In fiction it’s just plain annoying.  That’s certainly true of place names.  Making place names up is more a matter of expedience than pleasure.  I try to look at local patterns and go from there.  Using real names is best, but writers need to be cautious in this litigious age about using the real names of small places.

Looking at the names our pioneer forebears chose can be depressing.  Consider how many Salems and Springfields there are, coast to coast, not to mention a Portland in Maine as well as Oregon.  The obvious alternatives to back-home names were the ones already in place, Native American names like Multnomah and Skamokawa.  There were more than four hundred native languages in the area that became Washington State.  The sound combinations changed every fifty miles or so.

In southeast Washington, on the Oregon-Idaho border, the best-known place name is Walla Walla.  Towns within a hundred miles are named Wallowa and Wallula, so the Wall- prefix must be place-friendly.  Pullman (home of WSU) and Lewiston (ID) indicate the tendency to name places after prominent people.  (Note Mt. Hood, Mt. Adams, and Mt. St. Helens.)  The Tri-Cities area of Kennewick, Pasco, and Richland provides three examples of the naming patterns–Kennewick is Indian, Pasco is British, a family name, and Richland is one of those chamber of commerce come-ons that dot suburbs all over the country.  One town on the river, Bingen, gave a German friend of mine the giggles, because the local pronunciation uses a soft g.  The German city it was named for, Bingen am Rhein, takes a hard g.  Up on the northern border with Canada, we have the reverse case.  The town of Bellingham, home of Western Washington University, sounds like Belling Ham locally, though the proper British pronunciation is something like Bellinjum.

I like the k/c sound in Kennewick.  There are a good many k/c names along the Columbia River–Cathlamet, Kalama, Camas, and Klickitat come to mind, all of them Indian names.  Of real places on the river, Longview and Goldendale echo Richland, and Lyle and Stevenson are like Pasco.  My favorite southern Washington name, though, stands alone–White Salmon.  I’d call that one a story name.  Names like that aren’t used very often.  In Buffalo Bill’s Defunct, I called the seat of my imaginary county Klalo, which is not only local-sounding (vide Kalama and Klickitat) but also ties in to Klamath Falls in Oregon.

Latouche County, the made-up venue for my current mystery series, embodies another naming pattern.  Hudson’s Bay Company fur trappers were mostly French speakers, and French terms and surnames underline their historical presence.  The names are often mispronounced.  The town of Touche, for example, is pronounced Tooshie locally.  In far northeastern Oregon a nice winding river called the Grande Ronde is pronounced something like ground round.  The town at the spectacular Celilo Falls stretch of the Columbia was named The Dalles after the white water.  Across the Columbia from The Dalles lies another place with a story name, Horse Thief Lake.  The park there exhibits many of the petroglyphs and pictograms that were rescued from rising waters when dams were built on the river.

My earlier mystery series was set on the Long Beach Peninsula (a dull enough name) and I invented two place names for that area.  Willapa Bay (good Indian name) was once called Shoalwater Bay because the water is shallow.  I revived that for the bay and a small town on the ocean side.  I like Shoalwater but I’m less happy with my other invented place, Kayport.  My Kayport combines the real towns of Ilwaco and Long Beach.  I think I must have come up with the name because I was using a Kaypro computer at the time.

Farther north in Washington we find Aberdeen (another real place transported westward) and the Olympic Peninsula, which is indeed olympic.  Native American names in this area sound nothing like the ones in the Gorge.  I love Puyallup and Dosewallips and Humptulips, but I wouldn’t dare invent a name of that sort.  Further north we bump into Spanish names, missing since Heceta Head in Oregon.  Spanish names evoke California, understandably, not Washington.  I probably wouldn’t invent a Spanish place name for Washington.  After all, as G.M. Ford famously asked, Who in the Hell is Wanda Fuca?

Spring Cleaning, Ear Worms, and Other Matters

Everyone has an ear worm from time to time–a song playing in the head that will not go away.  As an annoyance, ear worms rank right up there with watery eyes and hiccups.  My husband, who is musical, hears only the melody, whereas my affliction can be triggered either by the tune or by the words of a song.  I remember both.  The most obnoxious example I can think of is “It’s a Small World After All.”  I first heard it at Disneyland when my son was six.  He’s now fifty, so it’s been at the top of the charts for a long time.

I’ve been reading articles on memory, others on language, and a book (The Singing Neanderthals) on music, memory, and language.  When I was in elementary school, it was still common to have to memorize poems and speeches, and of course all children had to memorize the multiplication tables as far as ten.  But that had gone by the wayside by the time I reached high school.  After fifty years of rejection, the idea of training the memory seems to be reviving faintly.  The theory was that, with calculators and computers to serve as artificial memory, teachers should focus on other kinds of learning.  Too many students had serious trouble in the memory sweepstakes.

I didn’t.  I started memorizing poetry when I was two or three.  My mother read to my brother and me, and what she read was poetry.  (Hello, John.  Happy birthday.)  She read Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses mostly, but also narrative poetry, some of it comic, from an anthology called Poems for Enjoyment.  I relied heavily on memory all the way through school and college.  My mother died in 2011 at 93.  I’m glad I thanked her for training my memory, though my training does make me super-vulnerable to ear worms.

What my brain has chosen to remember is odd.  German grammar, for instance.  I had four years of German in college, but I’ve only visited Germany once and then for less than a week.  I also studied Spanish and much later French, so why don’t those languages stick in my head the way German does?  Ich weiss nicht.  I also recall the process of extrapolation from trigonometry, though I’ve had even less use for trig than for Deutsch.  And most of all (or maybe worse of all) my head is full of poetry–other people’s.  Not just Shakespeare and John Donne but totally crappy country and western song lyrics and commercial jingles.

Since I’m at the age when people worry about dementia, I’ve thought about the advantage of having a head stocked with ready-made language.  Is it a good thing or a bad thing?  I don’t know, but sometimes I’d like to spring clean my head and erase a bunch of it.  Maybe then I could get rid of “Singin’ in the Rain” and “If I were a Rich Man” and all the other ear worms, especially “It’s a Small World.”  After all.



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