The Oathkeeper’s Forge

Photo credit: Frederic Bisson via flickr, Creative Commons 2.0

Photo credit: Frederic Bisson via flickr, Creative Commons 2.0

[It’s been quite a while since I participated in one of Chuck Wendig’s awesome writing challenges. One of them even produced the final three pages to my third novel, Whiskey and Rue. The randomized titles are among my favorite challenges, and when the d20 gave me “The Oathkeeper’s Forge,” it felt epic. Could’ve been 150,000 words instead of 1,500!]

The sounds of the forge comforted Mattias. He couldn’t remember a time when it didn’t feel like home. His parents laughed and said he was born of it. Now grizzled and beset with a raspy voice from decades of breathing coal dust, Mattias demonstrated his best techniques to his apprentice.

“Why are we here at midnight?” Sylvi asked.

“The oathkeeper’s work is done at night.”

“But you work during the day all the time.”

“That’s regular blacksmith work. This is oathkeeper’s work. Don’t they teach history in schools anymore?” Mattias sighed and drew his gloved hand across his sweating brow. “Yours is a lost generation.”

Sylvi kicked at the loose dirt around the stonework wall of the forge. “Guess I don’t listen very well.”

Mattias smirked. “You’re an oathkeeper’s apprentice. If you don’t know our traditions, then how can you be expected to carry out our laws? I ought to send you back to your family.”

Her head snapped up and she started at him with wide eyes. “I was just kidding. The oathkeeper works at midnight because the Pact of the Four Moons was signed then. ‘The oathkeepers shall protect the land and its people, as guided by the gods and their sentinels on Arúon. They are the king’s guard and chosen among the best warriors in Gallixia—may it rule as long as the Jynghast Mountains that embrace it stand.’”

Mattias nodded, placated for the moment. “You’re not a total loss. I guess I don’t have to send you back just yet. Diligence, my girl. Without it, the oathkeepers are weak. It counts for far more than physical strength. Mind that before I cast you out.”

Sylvi’s jaw dropped. She clutched the hammer with both hands and said nothing.

The upturned curl of a smile and glimmer in his eye belied the threat. He winked.

Sylvi sighed and loosened her grip on the hammer. The high arch at the forge’s entrance revealed a clear night sky. A dragon with crimson wings flew from the open plains to the east toward the mountains. “If forging this sword is a secret, then why are we out here in the open? Won’t people see? Isn’t there a secret forge for oathkeeper’s work?”

Mattias shook his head. “The king ordered us to war.” The word king was said with bitter venom. “We work day and night—so the story goes. Now see here, my fine apprentice. Temper the blade so near the hilt. What we do at this stage is critical—temper it too much, and the blade will be brittle and we may as well be charged with murder when the sword falls apart, leaving our warriors surprised and open to attack.”

Sylvi bit her lip. A troubled thought fluttered in her mind. She was grateful for the spray of fiery sparks to conceal her expression as Mattias plunged a massive awl into the coals.

She stared at the blade. Her mentor forged it with such grace and skill; the same hands would wield it for one purpose and one purpose only. The Oathkeeper’s Paradox—when protecting the land and its people meant assassinating the king.

The steel glowed hot. Ash swirled within tendrils of smoke as Mattias turned the blade over the coals. “Almost ready,” he said. “Prepare the cool down.”

Sylvi dropped the hammer she’d been fidgeting with and moved to pour the water in the trough. She murmured a prayer to Setakir, the sentinel of fire, as Mattias lowered the sword into the water.

Mattias peered at her through the billowing clouds of steam. “What’s the matter?”

Sylvi shrugged. “Isn’t there another way?”

“To do what?”

She struggled to say the words. “To…change who is in power.”

Mattias scowled through the dissipating steam. “You can’t be serious.”

“What if it leads to civil war?”

“We plan for everything. This is not a situation we take lightly. You kids. Always thinking we elders are too daft to do anything. The oathkeepers have existed for more than eight centuries. In that time, we’ve forged twelve blades for the Oathkeeper’s Paradox. Each sword only used once. Each one hangs in the chantry behind this forge, and as each one was placed on the wall behind the altar, we prayed another wouldn’t have to be forged.” Mattias grabbed the hilt and turned the blade over in the water.

“He’s not even our real king,” Sylvi said, pulling her honey-colored hair out of a ponytail to redo it. Her hair was damp with sweat. The ponytail redone, she wiped her hands on her leather apron. “Does he even deserve the respect of our traditions at all?”

“You mean why can’t we just execute him like he was a common criminal?”

Sylvi shrugged again.

Mattias pulled the sword out of the trough and rested it on the workbench. “Respect for the order of succession. True, Vrenkai is not from Gallixia, but King Domarr passed succession onto his father before he died. Domarr welcomed Varus as an ally and wanted Gallixia to have the protection of the new empire. Varus was an admirable ruler and he became as Gallixian as you or I. Everyone accepted him, and we were honored to bury him with full honors as befits one of our own kings when he died. Terrible tragedy that. His son isn’t worthy to lick his boots. Vrenkai is greedy and cruel. Like some gods-forsaken evil emperor in a tale told to children. As much as the new empire could have helped us when Varus was alive, it’s time to shed ourselves of its influence and return Gallixia to its old ways. As far as the Oathkeeper’s Paradox is concerned, this is one blade with a unique story. To kill a ruler from another land.”

“Why not have one of the dragons eat him?” Sylvi said.

“They don’t want to be involved in this. Besides,” he said with a wink, “Vrenkai’s blood is so filled with hatred it’s turned to poison. Don’t want to harm one of the dragons, do we? They have better things to do anyway—like watch the eastern border for enemies. We’re at a vulnerable time with broken leadership. Now please fetch the cleaning kit, will you?”

Sylvia crossed the room and grabbed the cleaning kit from the toolbench. The cool air in the shadows felt strange after being so close to the forge. She took a moment to breathe, taking in the meticulous organization of blacksmithing tools—awls ordered by size, and fittings separated by type in earthenware jars.

When she turned around, she paused. What she saw was too shocking to make sense. Mattias stood, arms out and bending back and an unnatural angle. A red stain spread over the front of his shirt, the tip of a broadsword emerged through his ribcage near his heart. Behind him stood Vrenkai.

He leaned in to talk close to Mattias’s ear. “You didn’t think I’d find out about your traitorous cult, did you? I’m going to behead you with your oathkeeper’s blade and display your skull at the city gate. This is the end to your cult.”

Red bubbles issues from Mattias’s mouth. His hand twitched as if to point to Sylvi. Their eyes locked.

She couldn’t let Vrenkai have the sword.

Eventually—she would. When she plunged it into his heart.

There was no time for that now. The emperor’s guards rushed into the room.

Sylvi sprinted out from the shadows. A prayer to the sentinel of the air increased her speed. She leapt up to the workbench by the forge and grabbed the oathkeeper’s sword.

Vrenaki struggled to shove Mattias’s body away as he tried to release the sword from it. “Get her!” he shouted, and the guards gave chase as Sylvi’s own heart pounded.

She ran down the street. Cutting into an alley, she crouched behind a stack of empty mead barrels and removed some twine from her toolbelt, then the belt itself. She secured the sword to the belt, then looped the belt over her shoulder and across her torso. Jumping from behind the barrels, she climbed the trellis up to the roof of the meadery.

The emperor’s guards ran through the streets, sounding the alarm for the city guards to join them.

Sylvi clambered over the rooftops, grateful that the buildings were in the business distract and closed for the night. She made her way to an abandoned building and stared. No—they’ll rip every abandoned place apart to the last splinter looking for me. I have to leave the city.

She huddled in an alcove under a chimney on a nearby roof. After an hour or so, let them fan out, then I’ll find my way out. Maybe I can ride in an empty mead barrel in a cart going out to Ironwell Falls.

It was going to be a long night. She gazed up at the four moons—the domains of the gods—and affirmed an oath to keep of her own.

Draft Zero

Participant-2014-Web-Banner

I was having lunch with a writer-friend recently, and she mentioned a great term that helped me put NaNoWriMo into sharper context: Draft Zero.

I’ve participated in National Novel Writing Month since 2011. In each case, I’ve cut the majority of the manuscript once November passed. I wrote more than 56,000 words for the initial round of my third novel, Whiskey and Rue, and only 6,000 of those words made it into the final version that was published. Some writers panic at the thought of extensive revisions. I used to as well.

The value of a 30-day freewriting session became clear while reviewing Whiskey and Rue. Carefully thinking out each scene can be restrictive. Any online writing forum, be it a group on Facebook or Google+ or elsewhere (I miss you, Scribophile—I hope to come back soon!), will have debates between “plotters and pansters,” i.e., those who plot out every detail in their notes and those who just sit down and write. For most of my works, I’ve had detailed notes and chapter outlines. Whiskey and Rue is the first instance in which I didn’t. I attribute it to the wonders of NaNoWriMo.

During that 30-day frenzy, scenes came to life that I doubt would’ve appeared if I had stuck to my meticulously crafted chapter outline. Some of the inspiration was from my own Muse; some of it came from prompts from the NaNo Sprints Twitter account. Their often funny prompts spawned a handful of quirky ideas that somehow fit right into the novel. A writing challenge on Chuck Wendig’s blog provided me with the last three pages of the story. It’s a puzzle that formed in sections. If I ran out of ideas for a chapter, I moved on. I leapt ahead whole chapters to capture a scene that would fit in sooner or later. But the end result of NaNoWriMo—not really a first draft.

My friend’s concept described it perfectly—you can’t read draft zero through as a complete arc. It’s a series of ideas that eventually coalesce into a real draft. For me, it takes three real drafts before I feel ready to show it to beta readers and editors. Draft zero is shown to no one.

Draft zero is a mess.

You pick through the pieces—finding the gems among the dross—and save them.

It isn’t wasted time. None of the discarded words are. All practice is beneficial, even when you don’t save much of it. It’s the same with sketching for me, though I (regrettably) practice that much less.

Draft zero can be the source of the best kind of inspiration; it just needs work. Veteran authors implore, admonish, and plead for new writers to be patient and work through several revisions before self-publishing. And I have to admit, when I see the special offers for publishing newly scribbled works right after NaNo is over, I cringe. Better to focus on the special offers for editorial services. A manuscript critique. Something that shows the process of the writing life for real.

For me, there are always works in various stages of development. There is at least one draft zero to pick up when it’s ready. A manuscript in full form, going through a first deep edit. There’s always something to work on, and it’s great to be able to shift gears and work on another novel when I realize it’s time to give a work a time-out for a while.

Draft zero may need to live in your desk drawer—okay, old phrase—may need to live in the cloud—for a long time before you can work on it again. Like a barren planet being terraformed, or a peaty single malt scotch (I’m looking at you, Lagavulin!), draft zero needs time to reach the perfect state of being. No matter what, whether you hit that 50K or not at the end of the month, draft zero has the potential to be a winner.

Winner-2014-Twitter-Profile

Lost and Found: A Writer’s Guide to Navigation

lost__found_symposium

Every so often, an event comes along that is incredibly interesting and while it has nothing in particular to do with a novel I’m working on, I know the notes I’ll take will find their way into my writing—sometime. The Radcliffe Institute’s science symposium about navigation, Lost and Found, is a perfect example.

In a word—this symposium was intense. It started out with presentations on neuroscience. One of the more accessible portions was the work of Eleanor Maguire, who studied the growth of the hippocampus in taxi drivers from training onward through their careers. As a result of memorizing London’s 25,000 streets, the hippocampus grew, and MRIs revealed brain activity as the drivers planned and dealt with unexpected obstacles using a simulation program. Upon retirement, the hippocampus began to shrink, and returned to average size within two to three years. Maguire’s research further demonstrated that people who say they have a poor sense of direction typically fall into a category of people who are able to recognize landmarks, but are unable to place them on a map. In contrast, people who find their way around well were able to draw detailed maps after playing a video game called Fog World. Maguire won an IgNobel award for her research in 2003. Though the IgNobels make light of a lot of research, there was also a good deal of appreciation for what she had discovered about brain function and the ability to navigate.

What followed were presentations on animal navigation and anthropological studies of migrations of people living in the South Pacific; then we were on to two of the most interesting lectures: lost person behavior, and navigation in outer space.

It was these afternoon sessions I found a lot of inspiration as a writer. Professor Richard Feinberg talked about the different types of tools used by cultures: the Carolinian star compass, the wind compass, star paths, and so on. Whether you’re portraying a real human culture and need your seafaring characters to know the trade winds as they cross the ocean, or characters in a fantasy world are trying to determine how to find their way to a land they’ve only heard about in legend, there were a lot of great details that could help shape how your characters journey in known and unknown lands.

The most dynamic presentation of the day was about lost person behavior. There are tons of novels and movies about people being lost, or trying to find someone. Did you know there is a database of more than 100,000 people that characterizes their behavior based on the data collected by search and rescue teams?

Birch_Islands_Maine

After obtaining information about all the wheres: Is it known where the person went? Have they been lost before. If so, where were they found? Where have other people been found if they have been lost in the same area? Is the person a hiker, angler, mushroom forager, or straying child? Once an initial planning point (IPP) has been determined, such as where the person’s abandoned bicycle was found, search efforts begin in earnest. The person’s cognitive abilities provide a wealth of detail that help search and rescue teams: Alzheimer’s patients tend to stick within 15 meters of roads or paths, and usually stop wandering in a short time. Autistic children are often drawn to light, water, and reflective surfaces. There are distinct patterns that emerge ass data continues to be collected. There are specific phases f being lost: (1) The error at the Decision Point, (2) terrain analysis, (3) confirmation bias, or “bending the map,” where people ignore the obvious signs they’re on the wrong track and are convinced they know where they’re going, (4) phase of anxiety, (5) realization of being lost, and (6) the self-rescue strategy, of which there are many.

Self-rescue strategies involve everything from deciding to stay in a straight line to finding contour paths that reach a wider area, or, staying put and hoping to be found. And over the years, statistics have changed due to technology. In the past, most hikers headed down, with only a few staying at the same elevation, and a good percentage heading up to get a view of the vista in order to find the best path out. Now many hikers head up to a higher elevation to find cell phone service.

These known patterns help establish several strategies for finding people, and the maps of probability are based on these behaviors. Robert J. Koester, the presenter of this amazing information, has written several books on the subject. If being lost is at the heart of your plot, you may want to seek these books out to make the lost person’s behavior, and that of the rescue team’s, more realistic.

The final session of the day was perfect fodder for sci-fi fans. With the study of pulsars, we have learned that they can serve as a sort of GPS. In fact, the Pioneer 10 and 11 space probes carry plaques suggested by Carl Sagan, to serve as a beacon to show any spacefaring alien life the way to Earth. (Of course, if you’re a fan of Douglas Adams, you know this could be a very bad idea, if the Volgons show up to read their poetry before blasting your planet into pieces to build a galactic superhighway.)

Pioneer10-plaque_tilt

The solar system at the bottom of the plaque is obvious. But the star-like graph to the left? It maps 14 pulsars that were known at the time of the plaque’s creation, and they position Earth at the center. Presenter George Hobbs talked about how time and position could theoretically be used as a GPS system in space, if a ship could map at least 4 pulsars. It was fascinating to think of how this could be used in fiction. My fourth novel does have space travel in it, but only as far out as Mars and the asteroid belt. But thinking about using pulsars as a means of navigation made me want to send my characters out even further into the galaxy.

Pulsar NASA

I’ve always been a strong supporter of continuing education, and believe it’s a key component for writers, regardless of genre or writing style. There is a traditional image of writers being sequestered away in their garrets, writing manically and producing book after book. But for practicality’s sake, many of us need careers to support our craft. Publishing houses offer little in the way of advances for a vast majority of authors, and even in the indie world, being discovered by readers on a scale of being able to live off the royalties is a challenge. Indeed, there are those who say authors need to be connected to the world—the awesome blog run by the Alliance of Independent Authors made this point recently.

There are endless, free resources out there for authors to use. And symposia such as these are of immense benefit to all kinds of writers.

“How Do They Feast?” Series: John Saturnall’s Feast

John Saturnall

When I saw the cover in the remainder pile at Harvard Book Store, I knew it was one of those stories I’d fall into and be thoroughly immersed in the author’s world. There’s no rhyme or reason to it—you know it when you see them. The cover may not even be that alluring, but some Muse whispers, “You need to read this one.”

Granted, I’ve devoted an entire series to the portrayal of food in fiction on this blog. And the book delved into medieval cookery and talked about spiced wine, quodlings, and frumenty, and the descriptions of the dishes were delightful. It was a challenge to decide which one to cook. Ironically, as I read the first page, I was reminded of Modernist Cuisine and the artful works of world-renowned chefs such as Ferran Adrià.

“Now Saturnus’s Gardens are overgrown. Our brokeback Age has forgotten the Dishes that graced the old God’s chestnutwood tables. In these new-restored times, Inkhorn Cooks prate of their inventions and Alchemical Cooks turn Cod Roes into Peas.” 

The innovation of food art has been with us a long time.

Right from the outset, John Saturnall’s Feast is steeped in moody and beautiful descriptions: the rain-soaked opening scene, in which our hero is delivered to a manor to spare his life. Harassed by villagers after his mother is accused of being a witch, John is hired to work in the kitchens of Buckland Manor. The legend of Buccla’s Wood is well-known, and John’s mother protects the cookbook that holds recipes for a feast of a pagan era. Buccula’s Wood is destroyed by Saint Clodock, and the lineage of these ancient characters carries on through this story.

Set in 1625 England, the novel takes place just as Cromwell rises to power with the civil war. By the time the war comes to the borders of Buckland Manor, John has been a cook in the lord’s employ for a while, and spends three winters as a camp cook while the lord of the manor fights for king and country. A despicable boy who bullied John as a child returns as one of Cromwell’s Puritan clergymen, and takes roost in the broken manor during the transitional years of the Commonwealth.

It’s an amazing historical novel, and as a reader, you’re right there in the kitchens from the moment John walks in and impresses the cooks with his sophisticated palate. The noise, the smells, both pleasant and not, all the frenetic activity of the kitchen is described down to the last detail. When John identifies ingredients to a broth he only just tasted, he’s confronted by Master Scovell, who demands to know how he came to be in possession of such talents:

Sprite/ Sayer? The creature that lives on the back of your tongue. That steered your palate through the broth in my copper, naming its parts. There are not a dozen cooks alive who would perform such a feat. You guide. How do you name him…A cook needs a familiar. The earth’s fruits are without number. No cook could master them alone.” And with that, not only does he find himself with a job, but an assignment.

His task is not easy: Sir William’s daughter, Lucretia, is fasting in protest of her betrothal to the “insipid” Piers Callock. Of course, after a rough start, John and Lucretia fall in love, and it’s their romance that is at the heart of the novel—along with the food, which is described just as passionately.

Lady Lucretia dumps every meal he prepares for her at first. He then brings a beef stew with sweet herbs and dumplings that she cannot resist. The culinary journey mirrors their romance, and by the end of the novel, circles back to the spiced wine that opened the legendary feast prepared by the witch Belllica.

The first men and woman drank spiced wine. They warmed it with honey and flavored it with saffron, cinnamon, and mace. They roasted dates and dissolved them…”

With its wonderful turns of phrase and brilliant characterization, John Saturnall’s Feast is truly that—a feast.

While all of the recipes captured my imagination, the one that I set out to make was the herbed beef stew with dumplings. Maybe it’s the chill fall air setting in, or maybe the magic of courting through food reminds me of Like Water for Chocolate (one of my favorites!), but an herbed broth and rich dumplings sound just perfect for right now. I stayed fairly true to the recipe I had for medieval beef stew, but of course, with cooking being an art…experiments will happen. I also made a couple of loaves of black bread to go along with it.

Enjoy, and be sure to enjoy it alongside the novel!

Stew and black bread

Beef Stew with Herbed Dumplings

Ingredients for stew

4 lb. beef chuck, cubed
1 onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, crushed
3 carrots, shopped
6 celery stalks, chopped
1 bottle beer, such as nut brown ale or porter, though I used Froach Heather Ale
2-3 cups beef broth (enough to cover ingredients in crock pot)
1 ½ tbl. baharat spice mix (A Middle Eastern spice mix made of cloves, black pepper, coriander, cumin, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, and paprika, though specific ingredients may vary. You can find a recipe here at food.com)
1 ½ tbl. Aleppo pepper
Salt and pepper to taste
2 tbl. corn starch

Combine ingredients in a crock pot, and set on low for 7 to 9 hours, or 3 ½ to 4 ½ hours.

Meanwhile, begin to prepare dumplings within about 45 minutes of stew being done in crock pot.

 Beef Stew with Dumplings

Ingredients for dumplings

2/3 cup milk
2 eggs
1 ½ tbl. herbs de Provence
1 ½ cups flour
4 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt

Let milk and eggs come to room temperature, about 30 minutes. Mix ingredients for dumplings together, stir until blended.

Before adding the dumplings, transfer stew to stock pot. Save some of the broth, add cornstarch, and stir well until mixed. Add back to stew. Spoon dumpling mixture on top of the stew. Cover tightly and simmer until dumplings are puffed. You should be able to poke a toothpick in and have it come out clean, about 15 to 20 minutes.

Serve with black bread.

Black Bread

1 packet dry yeast
4 ½ cups flour
2 cups rye flour
1 tbl. Turkish coffee grounds (or espresso, some people use instant coffee)
2 tbl. cocoa powder
1/4 cup molasses
2 tbl. honey
4 tsp. salt
1 ½ tsp. powdered cardamom

In large bowl, activate yeast with a small amount of warm water and a pinch of sugar. Add both kinds of flour, then the rest of the ingredients. Knead for about 20 minutes. Let rise, covered, for two hours.

Punch down the dough and halve it, let both portions rise for another 45 minutes.

Grease bread pans with butter, punch down dough and form loaves in the pans.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Bake until dark brown and hollow-sounding when tapped, approximately 35 minutes. Let cool before serving.

How Wonder Woman Got Into Harvard

Wonder Woman Event

Jill Lepore is one of those people who can expertly, yet completely organically, engage an audience. Her off-the-cuff speaking style and sheer exuberance is charming. Her lectures are fraught with details that sometimes flow at high speed, and reactions from the audience are frequent and often accompanied by gasps and bursts of laughter. The crowd gathered last week at the Radcliffe Institute for her presentation on her latest work, The Secret History of Wonder Woman.

Harvard man William Moulton Marsten is the inventor of the lie detector. So is there a connection between his pursuit of finding the truth and Wonder Woman’s lasso of truth? Indeed. There are many links to Marsten’s life and the heroine who joined the Justice League in the early 1940s. Strongly influenced by the aims of the suffragette movement in the early twentieth century, Dr. Marsten created the character of Wonder Woman with specific goals in mind. She was to “set a standard among children and young people of strong, free, courageous womanhood; and to combat the idea that women are inferior to men, and to inspire girls to self-confidence and achievement in athletics, occupations, and professions monopolized by men” because “the only hope for civilization is the greater freedom, development, and equality of women in all fields of human activity,” according to the press release from 1940. An expert in psychology, he sought to create psychological propaganda for the new type of woman.

Lou Rogers Art

Harvard peppers his story. Called “Holliday College,” Wonder Woman storms the gates time and again in the early years of the comic. Many sources were used to produce Wonder Woman’s backstory. Some inspiration is partially derived from the works of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a prolific writer and advocate for women’s rights. When viewing art that inspired the comic, a strong correlation is drawn to artist Lou Rogers, who drew many illustrations for the cause of women’s right to vote. In Wonder Woman’s early adventures, being bound in chains was a frequent plot device. Seeing portrayals of her bursting from the chains with broken links flying out attached to words like “prejudice, prudery, and man’s superiority” had a dramatic effect, one which has unfortunately been lost over the decades with the death of Dr. Marsten and his replacement making Wonder Woman a much more docile figure.

Parallels to the suffragette movement are seen throughout the comics. White horses became a symbol of the movement, particularly when Inez Milholland led a procession in 1913, tiara and all. What followed were frequent images of Wonder Woman riding a white horse, championing a range of causes for the 1940s audience. She was an activist for a progressive era, and she also fought corruption—and many of the issues she spoke out against reflect many of the issues we see today—corporate monopolies, unfair systems, and so on.

Inez Milholland 1913 parade

An early prototype for Wonder Woman? Inez Milholland, at a protest in Washington, DC, tiara and all!

Researching Dr. Marsten’s was a delicate business for Lepore, due to his unconventional lifestyle. The family protected many of the details over the years. After graduation with his bachelor’s from Harvard, he married sweetheart Elizabeth Holloway. As a professor at Tufts University, he fell in love with Olive Byrne, and the three became involved in a polyamorous relationship that cost him his career in academia. He later served as an advisor for Universal Pictures, helping them gauge the level of fear a movie-going audience could take with their outpouring of horror films that seem to campy to us today. The threesome had 4 children in total, two by each woman, and Elizabeth and Olive continued to live together for more than four decades after Marsten’s death in 1947.

With the introduction of Olive in his life, the feminist influence grew even stronger. Her mother and aunt, Ethel Byrne and Margaret Sanger, co-founded the birth control rights movement. When Ethel went on a hunger strike (for talking about birth control broke obscenity laws), a deal was made with Margaret so Ethel could be released. This early effort to raise the issue of birth control eventually became Planned Parenthood.

As World War II raged, the Justice League fought the Axis powers and became a central theme to many comics. Once the war was over, a multitude of comics foundered and went out of business. Some later were reinvented in later decades as the comic world grew. But Wonder Woman was always there, though her ascent was a bit bumpy at first. When she first joined the League, she was a mere secretary, signing the letters of membership for kids who signed up. But once she gained momentum, she was a force to be reckoned with.

Wonder Woman Event 2

 

Wonder Woman’s story took a dramatic decline after Dr. Marsten’s death. When Elizabeth and Olive offered to continue to the story, they were told on no uncertain terms by DC Comics that ladies couldn’t be involved in comics. The job was handed to new writers, who watered down her activist persona and made her much softer, and all doe-eyed over Steve Trevor, the pilot she helps when he crashed on Paradise Island in the first portion of the story. A revamping in the 1960s made her style groovier, but it was clear she had lost her way as a feminist powerhouse. Unfortunately, it hasn’t gotten much better.

Jill Lepore commented on recent Wonder Woman comics, and how, much like a lot of entertainment these days, is glorified violence and little substance in terms of character. Despite the overwhelming slew of movies based on comics, with several on Batman and Superman, sadly, they’ve been slow to put Wonder Woman on the docket. And as awesome blogs such as The Mary Sue and i09 show point out, our heroine is even left off the toy shelf sometimes, as can be seen in this Target display, where she’s not to be found at all among the members of the Justice League. While I haven’t read The Secret History of Wonder Woman yet, the title occupies a top slot in my list of books to dig into soon. Knowing Lepore’s brilliance in research, this will prove to be a fascinating read.

Leaving the lecture, I wondered what Dr. Marsten would have thought if he had known that the heated discussions of his day are ongoing, and even sliding backward. Wonder Woman’s legacy should be more than a tantalizing outfit or besotted gazing at Steve Trevor. She stood for something of immense value—the belief that little girls could grow up and achieve anything. Today’s political discourse about women is horrifying. Amplifying women’s roles in entertainment and culture is a key step in changing that, and it’s time to put Wonder Woman on that white horse again and march her down Main Street, USA, and indeed, across the world, to make for a better future.

Wonder Woman White Horse

Boston Book Festival 2014

 

BBF MBTA poster B

I did something a little different at the Boston Book Festival this year. I signed books in celebration of the release of my third novel, Whiskey and Rue. Coincidentally, the Boston Book Festival (BBF) occurred on the anniversary of the gunfight at OK Corral, which is a central event in the novel. I joined the Independent Publishers of New England (IPNE) earlier this year, and the benefits have been many. Ads in their catalog (designed by yours truly for the fall issue) have been seen at major book festivals across the region. When I saw the chance to have a presence at BBF to sign books at the IPNE table, I jumped at the chance. It was great to get to talk to so many avid readers and indie authors who were interested in learning more about the organization. I didn’t sell all my books, but something clicked—being out among 25,000 people gathered to talk all about reading, I felt like a real author. It was surreal to look at the nametag later, as I waited for one of the panel discussions to begin.

The moment my books were packed up (special thank you to my awesome husband, donning his new Sleepy Hollow-esque coat á la Icachabod Crane, for carrying my books, just like in high school!), I dashed off to attend as many sessions as I could. And as always, it was a challenge to decide between so many excellent choices.

CF at BBF

 

A series sponsored by The Writer magazine proved to be among the most interesting. I attended two called “Read Like a Writer,” one focused on suspense and the other on historical fiction. Designed like a creative writing workshop, copies of excerpts were distributed to the audience. Each author read their excerpt and explained why it resonated as one of the most important passages in their book. The common thread across all of them was that in each case, the author felt the paragraph best summarized the novel. What was interesting about the conversation with the audience was how people interpreted each sentence. The moderator zeroed in on word choice and sentence structure, and participants responded by talking about what each sentence meant to them.

This was particularly poignant for me during the historical fiction session when Susanna Kaysen compared her famous Girl, Interrupted with her new novel, Cambridge. I didn’t realize it was her at first, until she talked about how people reacted to Girl, Interrupted. Most people, she said, believed she had “cut a vein and let the words pour out onto the pages.” This wasn’t the case. Each sentence in Girl was carefully thought out. It was much more than an outpouring of deep emotion. She worked hard on the story’s structure and message, and depth of character.

Aspiring writers in the audience in each of these two sessions asked the authors where to look for guidance on writing? The advice: book across genres can be the best teachers. Rather than read a how-to book, they suggested, examine your favorite books and find out why they are your favorite. Pull apart the scenes, the descriptions of characters and settings, and figure out what makes them successful. There’s no better way to suss it out than by example. Sure, some of the how-to books are useful, but there are many mediocre ones out there, and a new writer would be better served by finding the best fiction that resonates with them.

Libraries of the Future

The session that absolutely blew me away was “Libraries of the Future.” Led by Matthew Battles of Harvard’s metaLAB, it was an information-packed presentation on how access and structure of libraries represent society as a whole. As one of civilization’s oldest institutions, the library says a tremendous amount about its people. In medieval times, they were curated by churches, and only church personnel had access. The carrels so many graduate students earn backaches from are based on the ones monks used centuries ago. When libraries became open spaces for the public, how books were storied changed. The Victorians believed in being able to better oneself through knowledge, and the library took on a more paternalistic role. As social movements grew, so did the access to knowledge. The Occupy Wall Street movement produced pop-up libraries for people to read the history that led to the protest. This is not the only social movement to do so. It’s happened many times in the past, and has become a fixture in most movements since the protests that came with the Industrial Revolution.

The final panel I attended was “Finding Our Way: Navigation Through The Ages,” with Boston Globe writer Hiawatha Bray and Harvard physicist (who works at CERN) John Edward Huth. It was a breath-taking description of the history of navigation. Indeed, Hiawatha Bray was so exuberant he was positively breathless by the end of his presentation. One hour was simply not enough to explore this topic, but fortunately, he told us, there is much more to come. On Friday, November 14, the Radcliffe Institute is hosting a day-long event “Lost and Found: A Science Symposium on Navigation.” Mr. Bray will have plenty of opportunity there to go into more detail about how navigation technology evolved.

GPS was not originally designed for the end-user. It was mandated by the FCC to help with emergencies, but as phones became more sophisticated computers, the GPS became a useful tool for everyone, and the software has now enabled us to find our way. But, the question was, how does that affect the journey? Has something been lost now that our heads are down and staring at a screen to catch up on emails and follow the arrow on Google Maps while we find that out-of-the-way specialty grocer in a neighborhood we don’t know well? In Somerville, art is everywhere. Looking up from the phone offers amazing chances to people watch—to immerse yourself in your environment. And that’s something that has become a problem, said Professor Huth. Knowing your environment is a skill. And knowing what to do if technology fails is another issue. Too often he heard people bemoan their lack of sense of direction, but really, if they paid more attention to the details, finding their way wouldn’t be such a challenge. It’s all about honing observational skills and understanding “the language of the environment.”

NESFA

How people get lost has created many terms for it—all seafaring cultures have specific words for being lost at sea, and have tricks about observing reflections on the waves and patterns of wind to figure out where they are. Today, there are databases that track the patterns of types of people: hunters, mushroom foragers, children, and seniors who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, because each category behaves in a similar way when lost. The database can be used to help search teams use their resources for the best chance of success. Professor Huth also said that when it comes to being lost—really and truly lost—the people who have the best chance of survival are the ones who don’t form a rigid hypothesis. Not getting fixated—much like the panicky fighters we see in horror films and shows like The Walking Dead—is key to survival. I only wished they had time to talk about the sun stones used by Vikings to navigate on cloudy days—hopefully, that will come at the Lost and Found Symposium later this month at Radcliffe.

Before this year’s Boston Book Festival, the organizers of the event sent an email that revealed their sudden realization of the existential theme of it. Upon reviewing the session titles, they realized how much as to do with journeys and destinations, both literal and metaphorical, and it was an amusing observation. One thing is for sure—as a destination, the Boston Book Festival is one of the city’s treasures; it always transports me to multiple worlds with each presentation, and I can’t wait to be part of it again next year.

Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat

Kitchen

The can opener was invented 50 years after canning was patented. In medieval and Renaissance Europe, knives were individualized to each owner as specifically as wands in Harry Potter, and didn’t become part of standard tableware until the 17th century. Modern salted butter is 1 to 2% salt; in 1305 AD, it was 10% salt for the purposes of preservation. In Western Europe, the overbite only developed recently—toward the late 18th century—due to the utensils we came to use every day. In Asia, the overbite was around for centuries because of the use of chopsticks.

This is just a smattering of facts that are detailed in Consider the Fork by Bee Wilson. Its thirteen-page bibliography is a testament to the meticulous research that went into writing this book. Broken down into basic elements of the kitchen, each chapter covers the gradual evolution of life in the kitchens. From the humble wooden spoon to the types of metal used for pots and pans, Wilson provides a fascinating history of cooking. With examples from around the globe, we learn how hearths were incorporated into the home, and eventually, the multi-room structure of aristocratic kitchens, with wet and dry pantries, game larders, sculleries, dairy rooms, bakehouses, and rooms for smoking meats, salting, and pastries. Sounds labyrinthine and the perfect setting for a novel!

The number of inspirational examples that begged to be included in fiction were plentiful. A two-tiered steamer made of Corinthian brass called an authepsa sold at an auction in ancient Rome for the same amount of money that could have bought a farm, according to Cicero. Cauldrons were so enormous and important as private property that they were passed down in wills. The Celts believed cauldrons to be a source of eternal abundance and knowledge, and an empty one symbolized absolute misery.

Consider the Fork cover

As a resource for writing about food, Consider the Fork is wonderful. Whether it’s for historical fiction, or building a world for an epic fantasy, this book offers insight into how culture and culinary life grew around the kitchen. Each chapter gives a long view—from ancient history to modern technology, and the idea that a fridge may someday be able to sort your food for you so that things that are about to expire are placed up front—shows how we adapted all the tools to meet our needs over centuries. The author demonstrates the sometimes-healthy, sometimes-silly skepticism that came with each new wave of technological development. Refrigerators were cause for concern because butchers could sell outdated meat. Currently, it’s the sous-vide. Another trendy device to take up counter space, or truly a wonder that refines taste and texture in the best way? It’s fascinating to read a history of everyday objects so many people take for granted. One thing is for sure—whenever I write about cooking in my novels, I’ll remember many details from this book, and the kitchens will be all that much warmer and fragrant.