Playing God

Two orphans, Amara (11), a servant, and Tadpole (8), a reluctant and hunted royal, escape and find their way through the Gallic countryside to Britannia.

It’s a classic story, fun to write. So I wrote the whole thing, some 40 plus chapters, rewrote the first 12, sent it to Elaine the Reader, got it back, rewrote those chapters, then the next 12, and then stopped. That’s where I am now after several weeks (could it be six or more?) of realizing the kids got off too easily.

Real children don’t have it easy. Last week, three of my grandchildren came to live with me while their parents took a work vacation. Children argue, fight, like each other, joke around, tease, and get hurt. They try out independence. Jon (barely 9) reveled in riding his bike all around the far reaches of our desert acreage, forbidden territory until now for him. They cheat, too. Indoor hide-and-seek became a lesson in peeking, faking the count, changing hiding places, and helping the seeker when you weren’t supposed to.

They also made characters out of plastic clay and we took pictures. The children were not doubtful about the one that lost a leg and then an arm. “He fell down the cliff!” “He got run over!” These little guys (aliens of some sort) had a rough time in the desert but finally found a place to rest.

An author is the god of his/her world, decreeing choices and plot. If the characters are to have a chance of becoming real to the readers (and hopefully there are some), their lives have to follow a pattern that fits them. Often the author is surprised by their choices, but allows them their independence. If the plot and characters have been reasonably set up, then the surprises will strengthen the story and make it more believable.

During the six weeks of not writing, I came to realize I’d let my two orphans off too easily. I’m a protective mother and grandmother. I love Amara and Tadpole. Why would I put them in real danger? What would they do out there in the woods if one of them was badly injured or sick? How could I do that to them?
If they didn’t encounter real danger, there would be no reason to write about them, would there? Why read a fictional travelogue? To be meaningful and perhaps even memorable, they had to have conflict, work to resolve it, and emerge changed for the better.

I’m ready for it. Just a couple of projects to finish up at home and then I’m back to four or more daily hours at the keyboard, drowning, eating wild poisonous berries, losing the boat, and being attacked by this and that.

Bad Luck, Good Luck

I just got back from a week in Vancouver BC with middle daughter Alisa, Maya (6), and Sahana (1). Vivek was off on a business trip, so they wanted company. It was cloudy and drizzly, a comforting relief from the desert heat.

Bad luck – I can’t upload the picture of rhododendrons. They were in their glory with enormous, pink to purple blossoms. The upload page choked on “crunching” five times for I don’t know how long because I stopped trying after ten minutes.

Perhaps remembering the fun I had is why my brain malfunctioned on the flight to Seattle. I left the first 20 chapters of Amara (working title) in the seat pocket in front of me. I’d put the folder there for takeoff. It never came out. The flight was only a half hour, just enough time to chat with my seat partner about why so many travelers these days are grandmothers flying to our far-flung children.

I’ve just confessed to working on a printed version, stark evidence that I don’t have a laptop. I’m not against it. But The Amulet’s first e-version had an embarrassing number of errors simply because it’s harder for me to catch mistakes on the monitor than on paper.

It’s OK. Elaine, my “I’ll read the early version” volunteer, saved her comments and re-sent them to me. They are now tucked away in a safe file ready to be applied to version 1b, on screen or on paper.

Because I had no manuscript and thus no work to do on the flight to Ontario CA (that’s California, not Canada), I took out a copy of The Amulet and started reading it. I hadn’t looked at it for weeks, so it felt fairly new. Here’s my opinion: It’s a good book, not a world-changing masterpiece, but entertaining enough to warrant the time spent.

I hope that if you’ve read it and enjoyed it, you’ll pass the word along. I don’t always do that with books I’ve liked, but those authors have a wider audience than I have.

Text message alert! Maya just found a four-leaf clover right next to a dime! That’s got to mean a hundred times more good luck than finding a penny! Maybe she’ll send some of that luck grandma’s way. Or not. I was lucky enough just to be able to see her again.

Grovel, grovel

Reading a paper proof of The Amulet, I am finding way too many typos and silly errors (like Britannica for Britannia). Apologies all over the place to those who have read or are reading it. Never again will I publish the e form before the paper form. Trust me, the sequel won’t have these problems!

At least the paper version will be correct from the start. That’s something.

Shameless Commerce Division

(Title borrowed from The Car Guys on NPR, the Mariacci brothers (spelling, my own, probably)).

Here’s the Amazon link for The Amulet. It’s only $2.99. Here’s the “description:”

Lydia (17) isn’t interested in politics, power, or religion, but when her little brother is kidnapped from Britannia and made a slave, she finds herself embroiled in all three. Searching for him, she encounters love, murder, betrayal and war. It is 196 AD. Two would-be Emperors compete for the Roman world. The actions of Lydia and her brother help determine the winner, but also put Lydia’s own future in doubt.

I hope you like it and tell your friends. There will be some who don’t like it, but they will still be my friends. Maybe they’ll like the sequel better.

If you’ve already been bombarded by this on Facebook or emails, I apologize. There’s almost always a “but” after “apologize.” This “but” is like my potted tomato plants near the back door. They were growing beautifully, full and green, and seemed to have weathered the big frost and the strong winds we’ve had recently. I watered them every morning until today when I was rushing off to a substitute teaching job. I knew they could survive one day without a morning drink. The ones out front planted in the ground could do it. I got home and as soon as I walked in the front door I could hear them gasping, making hoarse peeping cries through the back door. I rushed out, preceeded by Dawg, of course, and those poor things were on the cusp of wilting. Grabbing the hose, I soaked them! They cried, they were so happy. Then I checked the ones in the front yard. The tomatoes looked OK, but the young spinach and kale were lying flat our on the ground, beaten by the sun and heat. Watered them, too, and apologized.

The point is that if I don’t keep watering The Amulet now that it’s out in the cold cruel world of millions and millions of books to read, it will wilt away. What can I do?

By the way, it was super easy to publish on Amazon. I know that many, like me, don’t have e-readers, so I’m working on formatting the paper version. It will cost quite a bit more than $2.99, but each order is custom printed! You order, they print and send. What a great concept! I’m doing that through CreateSpace, an Amazon-connected business. It, too, seems easy but not as easy as the electronic version. Many of us do prefer to have a book in hand, don’t we?

The Amulet – Almost Time

The Amulet, first of the series, is almost ready to go to Amazon for e-publishing!  I have tweaked and formatted and agonized enough.  So why am I scared?

It doesn’t fit comfortably into a category.  How will the right audience find it?

Young Adult, yes, but its audience will be women between 15 and 95+.  Some men will like it, too.   Most novels in the YA category are either Vampire, Fantasy, Paranormal, or Romance (with sex more often than not).  The Amulet isn’t any of those.  A bit of paranormal helps the plot along, but doesn’t dominate in any way.  A bit of romance heightens the fun, but is secondary to the main plot.

A lot of people like me don’t like books reeking with lurid, provocative sex scenes.  That’s why we go to YA instead of Adult fiction.  I guess we’re not grown-up enough for the heavy stuff.

Historical Fiction.  I wish there was a subcategory called Light Historical Fiction, indicating that the reader won’t get bogged down with a lot of facts and foreign terms.  Who cares what the Latin title of the treasurer is?  Using a Latin term means the reader has to remember what it refers to.  Or social norms.  If I say my characters can ride horses and wander safely (more or less) all over Gaul, I shouldn’t have to include a treatise on society’s treatment of women in Rome vs Britannia.  The research has been done, so you can be confident that if I say it could happen, it could.

Have you read Roman or Greek plays?  They are fascinating studies of humanity, and just like Shakespeare, they are relevant today because the human condition does not change.  You understand what’s happening by watching the characters act out their lives, not by having a lot of justifications and explanations thrown at you.

My books are like that.  I put you into the time period, 2nd Century AD, and then get on with the story.

Buying The AmuletYes, please do buy it.  It’s cheap!  I’ll post the info on how to get it as soon as I send it in to Amazon.  If you like it even a little bit, please tell your friends so they can try it out.  Remember, what strikes one reader as superb, may not seem so to another, and vice versa.  Just so you know, of those who have pre-read The Amulet, over half have been over-the-top enthusiastic about it.  The others have kept silent, thank goodness.

Sheep and Cheese

Illustration by Natasha Simkhovitch

Researching the Roman times (especially 197 AD) is so easy on the Internet.  The two main characters, Tadpole (6) and Amara (11), find themselves on a sheep farm near Lyon, France, in Chapter 10.  What did I know about sheep farming?  Next to nothing.  Thanks to the Internet, I now know a lot more.

Long ago, a boyfriend gave me a Great Pyrenees puppy.  I knew nothing about Pyrenees puppies except that they are big, soft, white, and adorable.  I learned more.  Their traditional job is guarding sheep.  Those protective instincts work well in protecting small humans, also.  My Pyr would lie next to whatever baby was outside on a blanket in the sun, keeping watch.  As the children grew, Bear (the Pyr) stayed close.  She died young, as giant dogs do.  We still miss her.Now, I’ve found out that the puppies are put with the sheep flock so they will bond with the sheep and not with people.  Their natural protective instincts kick in when predators are around.

Bear, 8 weeks old

Weighing up to 120 lbs for male Pyrenees, they are able to ward off other dogs, wolfs and bears, saving the farmers many dollars in lost revenue.  There should be more than one Pyrenees per flock.  The dogs like it when another Pyr or two or three are also on guard.

Rottweilers and some other breeds can also be used for guarding, but how about this – donkeys and llamas, too!!!  The donkeys and llamas graze on the same stuff the sheep do, which means you don’t have to feed them.   However, there can only be one llama, because if you have more, they will bond to each other and not to the sheep.

Sheep, those wonderfully woolly creatures, not only give their warm coats to us, but also their milk.  On my trip to France in April [see blog] , my friend Mary and I fell in love with sheep cheese and goat cheese.  It turns out that cheese from sheep milk has been famous, really famous, since long before Homer’s time (12th Century BC).

Homer wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey.  Here’s a one paragraph synopsis: The Iliad is the tragic story of the noble Achilles, who perfectly embodies the ancient Greek ideals of heroic conduct but also suffers from the human failings of pride and anger. The Grecian army is divided by bickering, many admirable men are killed, and even the gods quarrel. The Odyssey, by contrast, contains many comic episodes, and its hero, Odysseus, triumphs over formidable adversaries through his superior intelligence, not by brute strength. The Iliad portrays a universe marred by moral disorder, but the Odyssey shows gods punishing men for their sins and granting a good man his just reward.

[The quote is from the link highlighted “synopsis”.]

That sounds pretty modern to me.  In fact, both books retain a modern feeling in dealing with human beings, our foibles and our good points.  Surely, after 1400 years or so we have improved a little?

Cheese.  Odysseus, in the Odyssey, watches the Cyclops milk his sheep and then make cheese from it.  Homer describes the process.  I haven’t read it, but it’s on my list.

Pliny the Elder, who was governor of Gallia Narbonensis (southeastern France) around 70 AD is often quoted as saying that the sheep cheese from around Nimes is the best in the world, though it’s best eaten when fresh since it doesn’t keep long.

The boy in my book, Tadpole, comes from the Nimes area.  He loves sheep cheese but doesn’t know much about it, being more of a city boy.  In Chapter ten, on the farm near Lyon, he learns quickly.

He is given a bag made from a lamb’s stomach and taught how to milk a ewe.  The lamb’s stomach is used because the lamb has only eaten its mother’s milk until then, and the stomach is lined with rennett, which coagulates sheep milk so that it turns to cheese.  Think of the curds in a baby’s spit-up.

That’s not the only way to coagulate sheep milk.  Romans used a fresh stick from a fig tree to stir the milk.  Sap running from the stick worked the same as the rennett in the lamb’s stomach.  This is good for vegans to know, who don’t eat cheese because of animal rennett.

And there you have it, cheese and sheep.  With every place these characters go, everything they do, they teach me more and more of the way of life of all strata of society in this time period 196-200 AD.  Storytelling is fun!

Yep, History Repeats Itself

I love having the time and resources to resurrect my college education.  “Resurrect” because there were classes like Classical Literature I glossed over, barely attending enough times to pass.  Now, thanks to researching my novels, the classics are coming to life for me!   Here are a few things gleaned from Meyer Reinhold:

1)       Greece never recovered from the loss of wealth and manpower caused by the Peloponnesian War which lasted 27 years from 431-404 BC.

2)      There was a growing gap between the large number of poor and the few rich.

3)      Disillusionment with government caused a greater concern for self and family.

4)      The rise of professional politicians let others avoid civic responsibility.

Re: 1)  The U.S. has surpassed the 27-year war by 3.  For 30 years, since 1981, there has been continual involvement in military conflicts.  Some have been huge, like the Persian Gulf war (1990-1991), and some small like “peacekeeping” operations.  Before 1981, a whole generation had been demoralized by the Vietnam War and before that, the Korean War.  [Click this link for a good website about this.]

Greece may have lost wealth in their ancient wars, but the U.S. seems to depend on wars for gaining wealth.  There is higher employment, more manufacturing, more scientific research, and more support programs when we are fighting somewhere.  I could add that there is also more graft and corruption because of the temptation to grab some of the wealth.  The current economic wreckage  is not because of war but because of financial greed by bankers and investors worldwide who followed the example of the U.S.

Re: 2)  Doesn’t the Occupy movement all over the world, pitting the 99% against the 1% , confirm that the gap exists now?  There’s not only an economic gap but an idealogical gap, a huge one.  Studies have shown that even the extremely rich don’t think they are.  There’s always someone richer, someone with more houses, more planes, more everything.  They are thus compelled to keep amassing wealth, to be at the top.

Croesus, the enormously rich king of Lydia (560-547 BC), was told by Solon that wealth was not the key to happiness.  Croesus dismissed Solon as a fool, but by the end of his reign he realized it was true.  [Told by Herodotus.]

Re: 3)  When people live together in larger numbers than families, like towns or cities or states, they usually develop a civilized way of cooperating with each other.  It is necessary for life.  Governments are set up to help people help each other by sharing resources, ideals, and working together.  When a government is run by selfish people, corruption inevitably follows.

When politicians parade their love of “family” for show, for gain, that’s selfish.  Families are the first building block of a nation because they are the smallest unit of people living and working together.  In a good nation, one that genuinely cherishes and supports the family unit, things go well.  Some of the more successful nations in this regard are the Scandinavian countries and others who tax heavily so all can benefit.

Here’s an example of non-civilized order.  It’s a Somali saying:

I and Somalia against the world.

I and my clan against Somalia.

I and my family against the clan.

I and my brother against the family.

I against my brother.

Re: 4)  Good people are often elected to office.  After a few years, surrounded by temptations of all kinds, many are corrupted and begin to think more about themselves and their cohorts than about the larger constituency who elected them.

Sometimes I think that there should be no politicians.  The responsibility for governing would be entrusted to every adult.  Each year, a certain number of names would be drawn from a hat (a large hat) and those chosen would be in charge for one year.  Each state would provide housing and per diem so these people could live in Washington D.C. and run the nation during their time in office.  No-one could repeat the same job.  The Athenians tried something like this and it was successful for a time, but eventually people lost interest and governing fell into the hands of the wealthier few.

It would also be a good idea to move the nation’s capitol to the geographic center so that the East Coasters would learn some humility.  Students near D.C. grow up with politics in their backyard.  Students west of the Mississippi rarely get a chance to see government in action or feel a part of it.

Roman gladiators, from the museum in Nimes, France.

If this blog has been too serious, don’t give up.  Humor is coming with the Greek comedies!