Monday, December 28, 2009

The Medieval Christmas Season

We celebrate Christmas: a rush of gift buying, cooking, baking, and decorating, culminating in one big day. The medieval Christmas was more of a full season of special days, from Advent to at least January 6, the Epiphany.

Christmas Eve was known as Adam and Eve day. From the early 14th century, “miracle plays”– performances that told Bible stories for a largely illiterate population– were performed on that day.

To a modern reader, the connection between Adam and Eve and the birth of Christ may or may not be immediately apparent. But the plays highlighted the importance of Christ returning, to bring us redemption from the Fall; to remind the people that once we had paradise, and, thanks to Christ coming to Earth as man, we may have Paradise again. It stressed the importance of the Christmas season and Christ’s coming, in their lives.

medieval Christmas, medieval happiness, medieval Christmas tree, history of Christmas trees


Christmas trees were called “Paradise Trees” because they originally were used as a prop in the Christmas Eve miracle plays centering on Eden, or Paradise. The decorations on the tree stem partly from the apples hung there to symbolize Adam and Eve, and partly from the legend that says evergreens bloom at midnight on Christmas Eve, thus leading to the tradition of decorating the trees with both fruits and paper flowers. Round white wafers– representing the communion host– were also hung in the boughs as a reminder of redemption coming through the birth of Christ. The fall of man was a key component to understanding the significance of the birth of Christ.

Adam and Eve Day, on the 24th, and Christmas Day on the 25th, were immediately followed by St. Stephen’s Day or Boxing Day on December 26, a day popular for visiting friends and family.

From the middle ages, Boxing Day was a day in which servants received a yearly gift much like our current Christmas bonuses, and were free of their duties for a day, in exchange for having made sure their masters had a smooth and pleasant Christmas, some say. Traditionally, it was also a day to give money to the poor, and has been a public holiday in Scotland since 1971.

In Ireland, which, in the middle ages, shared a very similar culture to the Scottish highlands, the same day is also called Wrens Day, after the tradition of carrying an effigy of a wren, or even capturing a live one to carry in a cage. The ”Wrenboys” or “Mummers” who carried these wrens traveled from house to house, singing, dancing, and playing music.  A look at the wren in the cage was exchanged for treats.

A popular rhyme, later turned into a song, began thus:

The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,

St. Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze,

Although he was little his honour was great,

Jump up me lads and give us a treat.

Tomorrow… more on some very interesting traditions associated with December 28.

And if you're beginning to think about some unique meals inspired by medieval traditions, look for my medieval recipes, from Food and Feast: a gastronomic historic poetic musical romp in thyme under my medieval recipes label.  Or buy the book! (Over 200 recipes, medieval and modern.)


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Medieval Easter, Deck the Medieval Halls,
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Deck the Medieval Halls

Today, many people are taking down the Christmas tree and cleaning out the vestiges of Christmas. In medieval times, the twelve days of Christmas– from the feast of the birth of Christ until the Epiphany, when the wise men arrived with gifts– is barely beginning on December 26.
How might the halls of the great castles been decorated throughout the celebrations? It has turned out to be a particularly difficult topic for research, with very little information turning up.
As mentioned in a previous post, trees might have been decorated with apples on Christmas Eve. But the trees stayed outside, strongly rooted in terra firma. Pine boughs would have been common, however, perhaps with plenty of ivy, holly, and mistletoe. As it was a great feast day, we can guess that the rushes on the floor would be fresh, and likely a higher quality of candle used around the hall– perhaps more candles than usual. A yule log would have burned in many hearths throughout the twelve days. It’s a good guess, too, that it would have been a time of fresh linens on tables and altars.
But for the time, very little is recorded about those decorations. I hope soon to find more information

Christmas Then and Now

Christmas, not surprisingly, has gone through many incarnations in two thousand years, its customs, traditions, and the emphasis put on it changing not only with time, but with place. For the first thousand and some years, there is no record of the word Christmas at all. Our first record of the term is from 1038 when a Saxon book uses the words “Cristes Maesse.” Much later, after the Reformation, Christmas was largely frowned upon. But in Niall’s time, the Middle Ages, Christmas was still openly celebrated.
Today, of course, it is an almost secular celebration of lights, feasting, gift-giving and family gatherings. But for the people of Glenmirril, Christmas would have been focused on the religious aspect, the birth of Christ, more solemn than what we know. People of the time saw Christmas as a time of prayer and reflection, in hopes of Christ coming again.
They feasted, as we do, but not on turkey. It seems no one was willing to sail west in hopes of finding an undiscovered country with such a creature. Being of the upper crust, Niall, Allene, and the Laird may have feasted on goose, swan, and venison. The poorer people of medieval Europe dined on Christmas goose. Mince pies, filled with spices, fruits, and meats at that time, were popular, as were Christmas puddings, or ‘frumenty’ as it was also called. Frumenty consisted of a thick porridge mixed with egg yolk, currants, spices, and fruits. There were also plenty of stews, soups, fish, and boar.
Before or while feasting, the lords and ladies may have been entertained by ‘mumming,’ which was the practice of putting on plays or dancing. The story of Christ, with Herod as the villain, was popular.
Less common to our own time, hearths would typically burn with a yule log, a practice of both Vikings and Druids. And the term wassail comes from the old words waes hael, be well. We certainly do drink to one another’s health, but in medieval times, a hot brew of honey, ale, and spices was poured into a large bowl, which the host lifted to greet his company, with the words Waes hael!

The people of the medieval world knew caroling. The word carol, in fact, meant to sing and dance in a circle, which, not surprisingly, the priests found a bit disruptive to Mass. As a result, ‘carols’ of the disruptive singing and dancing in a circle during Mass kind were banned, and carolers took to the streets. Hence the tradition of caroling door to door. I, for one, am glad that the songs themselves are now allowed in church, but do not plan to dance in a circle, square, or any other manner, during Mass this year. (Or next, just in case anyone is wondering.)

In 1223, 67 years before Niall’s birth, St. Francis of Assisi created the first Nativity Scene in Italy, to explain the Christmas story to the villagers.
Niall and Allene may have seen a decorated tree, but it would have stayed outside. Medieval priests would decorate trees on Christmas Eve with apples, as the day was known as “Adam and Eve Day.”
For those of us who have managed not to get whisked back in time via a mysterious Scottish castle, we associate Christmas with gifts. We might be disappointed, because for the medieval Christian, Christmas was a more solemn occasion, and gifts were not traded until Epiphany, or Twelfth Night– the night the Magi reached Christ in the stable. On the other hand, of course, a medieval Christmas celebration lasted for 12 days. Talk about partying like it’s 1399!

Thank You, Jennifer at Rundpinne

The last six weeks or so have been packed with activities. In writing, I am finishing up the last of five appearances this Saturday, blogging and working on three books, to varying degrees, preparing Blue Bells of Scotland for expanded distribution in several venues and a book awards submission, and reviewing books for other authors. I’m also keeping up with my music studio and my children’s activities– the Christmas program season is on us, so there have been and are, choir and band concerts for my children, and my music students’ recital coming up! I’m really enjoying the concerts, have seen some wonderful playing, and am thrilled to have my advanced students playing some jazz arrangements of Christmas carols.
But it means I have been shamefully remiss and dropped a few things I’m juggling. So, first, my apologies to Jennifer for the delay, and second, my thanks to Jennifer for her review at her book blog, Rundpinne. Jennifer keeps a very active blog covering a variety of genres in both fiction and non-fiction. Recent reviews include cookbooks, a book on digital photography, a memoir on dealing with a child’s illness, and a novel that delves deep into two women’s decisions about pregnancies. (This is from another Minnesota author, Joy DeKok, whose website I will definitely be visiting.) Jennifer’s blog is well worth following if you love reading.
Jennnifer posted her review of my book on December 4, giving it 5 coffee cups (equivalent to stars, of course!)

he last six weeks or so have been packed with activities. In writing, I am finishing up the last of five appearances this Saturday, blogging and working on three books, to varying degrees, preparing Blue Bells of Scotland for expanded distribution in several venues and a book awards submission, and reviewing books for other authors. I’m also keeping up with my music studio and my children’s activities– the Christmas program season is on us, so there have been and are, choir and band concerts for my children, and my music students’ recital coming up! I’m really enjoying the concerts, have seen some wonderful playing, and am thrilled to have my advanced students playing some jazz arrangements of Christmas carols.

But it means I have been shamefully remiss and dropped a few things I’m juggling. So, first, my apologies to Jennifer for the delay, and second, my thanks to Jennifer for her review at her book blog, Rundpinne. Jennifer keeps a very active blog covering a variety of genres in both fiction and non-fiction. Recent reviews include cookbooks, a book on digital photography, a memoir on dealing with a child’s illness, and a novel that delves deep into two women’s decisions about pregnancies. (This is from another Minnesota author, Joy DeKok, whose website I will definitely be visiting.) Jennifer’s blog is well worth following if you love reading.



Jennnifer posted her review of my book on December 4, giving it 5 coffee cups (equivalent to stars, of course!)



Some excerpts from her review:

“The story line sounded promising and Laura Vosika does not disappoint….

A delightfully intricate tale of time travel, life lessons, challenges of faith, and redemption….

I found the story moving, witty, and captivating. This was indeed a page-turner and I look forward to finishing the trilogy. I highly recommend this novel to anyone. It makes for a fantastic read and would make an excellent gift.”

Now seems like a perfect time to add a comment on the characters to whom people are drawn, and why. Jennifer says in her blog that she is more drawn to Niall, because he actually cares what happens to people, and thinks through the effects of his own actions on others. Among the members of my writing group, Night Writers, there are those who prefer Niall– because he’s a better man, because he’s all we hope for in a man or hope our sons would grow up to be– and those who prefer Shawn.

Why would someone prefer a self-centered, drunken, gambling womanizer? One member of my group said, tongue in cheek, because he’s taking notes on Shawn’s methods! A member of the audience at Tuesday night’s talk also brought this issue up, noting how Shawn got all of the attention that night. She thinks it is partly because rogues fascinate us, as they get into all sorts of scrapes we would never dream of. They live lives that sound fun, exciting and daring, but which our own better natures and common sense prevent us from emulating. We live vicariously and safely through literature’s rogues. And partly, Robin said, we love rogues because we can look at someone like Shawn and feel better about ourselves, seeing we’re really pretty decent people after all, in comparison. I think she made a good point about human nature.

I enjoy hearing people’s views on whom they prefer and why, in part because I’m pleased to find I’m conveying exactly what I’d hoped to!


Some excerpts from her review:
“The story line sounded promising and Laura Vosika does not disappoint….

A delightfully intricate tale of time travel, life lessons, challenges of faith, and redemption….

I found the story moving, witty, and captivating. This was indeed a page-turner and I look forward to finishing the trilogy. I highly recommend this novel to anyone. It makes for a fantastic read and would make an excellent gift.”

Now seems like a perfect time to add a comment on the characters to whom people are drawn, and why. Jennifer says in her blog that she is more drawn to Niall, because he actually cares what happens to people, and thinks through the effects of his own actions on others. Among the members of my writing group, Night Writers, there are those who prefer Niall– because he’s a better man, because he’s all we hope for in a man or hope our sons would grow up to be– and those who prefer Shawn.
Why would someone prefer a self-centered, drunken, gambling womanizer? One member of my group said, tongue in cheek, because he’s taking notes on Shawn’s methods! A member of the audience at Tuesday night’s talk also brought this issue up, noting how Shawn got all of the attention that night. She thinks it is partly because rogues fascinate us, as they get into all sorts of scrapes we would never dream of. They live lives that sound fun, exciting and daring, but which our own better natures and common sense prevent us from emulating. We live vicariously and safely through literature’s rogues. And partly, Robin said, we love rogues because we can look at someone like Shawn and feel better about ourselves, seeing we’re really pretty decent people after all, in comparison. I think she made a good point about human nature.
I enjoy hearing people’s views on whom they prefer and why, in part because I’m pleased to find I’m conveying exactly what I’d hoped to!

Author's Tea

Once again, I would like to offer thanks to Amy at Osseo School District’s community education, and Genny Kieley for inviting me to speak at the annual Author’s Tea last night. Genny, the main speaker and author of three books on Northeast Minneapolis and her latest Green Stamps to Hot Pants: Growing Up in the 50’s and 60’s invited me to join her.
Amy and her staff put in a great deal of work to make each year’s Author’s Tea unique, and had a very nice set-up in the high school cafeteria, with decor reflecting Genny’s book. The food service staff had prepared a nice array of bars, fruits, and hors douvres for the 68 women who came out in our first real snow of the season.
I spoke about my book and the influences that brought it to life, including my background as a musician, and Genny spoke about the 50’s and 60’s: spoolies, home permanents, swimming caps, muscle cars, house dresses, and more. The audience seemed to really enjoy the evening. I enjoyed meeting many of the women and talking to them afterward. The whole night was a real pleasure, and, once again, Amy deserves a great deal of credit for putting on such a nice event.
I was especially excited to be speaking at my alma mater, and to any Osseo alumni, yes, the blue tiles are gone! The school is largely remodeled and refurbished.
In other news, November and December have been particularly busy months. I now have my blog on RSS feed to my author page at amazon.com. So if you are reading it there, please stop by www.bluebellstrilogy.com/blog to read more on medieval Scotland, and books related to Scotland or time travel.
I have two more events coming up in December: Tuesday night’s appearance at the Maple Grove Library at 7 pm, and next Saturday’s book signing at the Maple Grove Byerly’s, both with other Night Writers. The Byerly’s event also features live music and our Rescue an Abandoned Book, so stop by and pick up a free used book that needs a new home. And in the meantime, I expect to get back to blogging about medieval Scotland. I will be focusing on medieval and Scottish Christmas and New Year’s traditions throughout December.

Book Signing

The Night Writers held a book signing yesterday at Maple Grove Lutheran Church, with four of us signing books. In addition to Blue Bells of Scotland, Lyn Miller LaCoursiere was on hand with the fourth book, Sunsets, in her Lindy Lewis mysteries series, Inna Sicard with I Have Been Thinking…, a collection of very short stories and observations about life, and Ross Tarry with his fourth mystery, Eye of the Serpent.
The event was well-attended, with nice facilities, live music, and great food! It was also a good chance to see some old friends. My thanks go to all who helped make the event a success, and I am looking forward to future events. On December 3, I will be speaking at the Author’s Tea at Osseo School District with Genny Kieley; December 8, several Night Writers will be speaking at the Maple Grove Library’s Author Talk series.
On December 12, a number of us will be in the community room at the Maple Grove Byerly’s, once again sponsoring a “Rescue an Abandoned Book” event– that means come and get them, they’re free! Justin Knauss and I will be providing live music with guitar, harp, and flute. I am looking forward to having a chance to pull out my alto flute, so if you’ve never heard one, stop by!
And of course, we will be there with our books. In addition to Eye of the Serpent, I Have Been Thinking, Blue Bells of Scotland, and Sunsets, John Stanton will have his new book available: The Truth About Aliens, UFO’s, and All That, and I have just received a shipment of 2010 Daily Planners featuring Urquhart Castle in Scotland, which will be available.
If you’re looking for gifts for a book lover or for yourself, stop by and take a look!

Bookbuzzr Updated

It was brought to my attention that my bookbuzzr preview of Blue Bells of Scotland came out in a font difficult to read. I have updated that file and the prelude and chapter one are now in a larger and easier to read font. Scroll down and look on the left hand side of my blog to find the icon for Bookbuzzr. Click, and it should bring up the preview. Enjoy and feel free to pass on to your friends!

Methods of Time Travel in Fiction

I confess, I read only books that I find in thrift stores. There are two reasons for this, one of which I might admit to another day! and one of which I will say now: it feels a little bit like a treasure hunt. My recent find was two novels by Jack Finney, the first of which is Time and Again. It is the story of Si Morley, advertising artist in the early 70’s (late 60’s?), who is offered the chance of a lifetime to join a secret project of the United States government, without knowing what the project is. He signs on and I think it won’t be a spoiler, since it’s right there on the dust jacket (not to mention the title of my article), to say the project involves time travel.
I am currently about half-way through, and finding it an absolutely fascinating story, with very realistic reactions to meeting people of another era, and vivid descriptions. I would say Jack Finney’s strongest point of his many strong points, is his attention for detail, which really brings each scene alive.
What interested me, however, is comparing the methods of time travel in the many stories available that feature it. H.G. Wells’ Time Machine is probably the best known. Like H.G. Wells, Michael Crichton uses technology to transport his characters in his book Timeline.
A second method that seems to come up routinely is witchcraft or magic. A sorcerer is the– forgive the pun– source of the switch in time in the movie Just Visiting. An evil witch does the same thing to her unsuspecting victim in a lesser known book, a romance, called The Gray Ghost. My favorite childhood novel, In the Keep of Time, by Margaret J. Anderson, fits in the magic category: an ancient ruin of a Scottish keep, whose key at times glows mysteriously– and that is when the switches happen. I think Diana Gabaldon’s beloved and popular Outlander series would also fall into this category, as the characters travel through standing stones.
Somewhere in Time, the Christopher Reeve movie set on Michigan’s Mackinac Island, relies on the concept that a man can surround himself with the elements of the past and believe himself right back into a different era. This is the idea Jack Finney uses, although with the twist of an elaborate secret government project, based on Einstein’s theories, in which Si Morley and others like him are trained in self-hypnosis, given extensive training in the era to which they will travel, and left at sites which either are virtually as they were, or can be made, briefly, to be much as they were, in the time era to which the researchers intend to travel.
The recent and very popular Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, has presented the most unique explanation to date: a genetic anomaly.
My own novel, Blue Bells of Scotland, ends with no real explanation as to how the switch might have occurred. In Book 2, they explore that question, and so far, I have not seen a book that uses the same explanation they find.
I continue to look for books on time travel, and am interested to find out what other methods have been conjured by authors. Feel free to comment on time travel novels you’ve read or look into lots of great Time Travel Fiction at Amazon! Have fun!

Ex-Communicated. Again

For some background information on this article, it is important to know that Bruce lived from 1274 until 1329, 200 years before Martin Luther's 95 Theses and before Henry VIII made his split from the Catholic Church. In other words, in his day to be Christian was to be Catholic.

For some background information on this article, it is important to know that Bruce lived from 1274 until 1329, 200 years before Martin Luther's 95 Theses and before Henry VIII made his split from the Catholic Church. In other words, in his day to be Christian was to be Catholic.

And Bruce himself seems to have been a rather devout Catholic. He counted among his close friends and associates Bishops Lamberton and Wishart, and Bernard de Linton, Abbot of Arbroath. He carried the relics of both St. Columba and St. Fillan to the Battle of Bannockburn in June of 1314. And on the morning of the main battle, Bruce started the day with Mass, his army of thousands on its knees before Maurice, the blind and barefoot abbot of Inchaffray, not only saying Mass, but receiving absolution. The Declaration of Arbroath, sent to the Pope in 1320, compares Bruce to the Biblical figures of Joshua and Judas Maccabeus, who led their people against oppressors. One of his unfulfilled dreams was to go on a Crusade. Such was his wish that, though he was unable to fulfill it himself, he exhorted a promise from his closest friend, James Douglas, that, after Bruce's death, James would take his, Bruce's, heart on Crusade. This James Douglas did, carrying Bruce's heart in a silver casket.
As to excommunication, it is a formal declaration of exclusion from the community, and within the Catholic Church typically means one is no longer allowed to partake of communion.
For a devout Catholic, Robert Bruce had a bad knack for getting ex-communicated. It started with the murder of John Comyn, the Red Comyn, Lord of Badenoch (yes, these were all the same man-- just to be clear which of several John Comyns we're talking about) before the altar of Greyfriars Church in 1306. In Blue Bells of Scotland, Shawn expresses disbelief that a man should be excommunicated for killing, as it seems, to him, to be the national pastime of medieval Scotland. And it is true that the real issue was not so much the killing, as the killing of a man on holy ground.
The thing to remember about excommunication is that it's like drenched. You can't get more drenched, and you can't get more excommunicated. Unlike drenchings, though, excommunication does not 'dry out.' You remain so until it is formally lifted. And this is why it's an almost amusing story, that in 1317, with the former excommunication never having been lifted, and no more severe penalties to inflict, Pope John XXII once again excommunicated Bruce. This time, however, he applied the punishment to all of Bruce's associates, the whole of Scotland, really, and furthermore, declared that the prelates of York and London were to repeat the excommunication ceremony every single Sunday and every holy day for a whole year. As if a drenched man might become even more drenched.
Interestingly, many sources credit the Pope's ridiculous order as the inspiration for the Scottish nobles writing the Declaration of Arbroath, Scotland's most famous document on a par with, and many say largely the basis for, our own Declaration of Independence.
I wonder how Bruce or his comrades felt about all of this. I suspect that they were strong enough in their faith in the rightness of their cause, declaring the independence that had always been theirs before Edward Longshanks invaded, that it was little more than a source of amusement to them, although I would think it might also have saddened them, to be on the wrong side of a faith and church that they obviously valued.

Thank You, Mirella

The second review on my blog tour went up yesterday at The Historical Novel Review, the Guide to Exceptional Historical Fiction. I would like to thank Mirella Patzer for her time, and highly recommend her site to all lovers of historical fiction. She and a team of four reviewers, Vanitha, Miranda, Anita, and Lisa, writers and editors all, cover a great variety of historical fiction, from 5th Century Europe to America during World War II, from well-known authors such as Jean Plaidy to, well, those like me, just starting out with our first novels. Styles covered range from mystery and adventure to historical romance and novelizations of Biblical figures. This site truly has something for everyone! With so many books and so little time (to steal a famous quote), sites like Mirella's are a gift to those of us who love discovering history in literature.
A brief excerpt from Mirella's review of Blue Bells of Scotland:
[Shawn and Niall] evolve and change in a touching, sometimes heart-wrenching manner. It is this, along with a richness of detail, that makes this story larger than life.

And, of course, please stop by her site to read the rest and see what other great novels are out there!

Thank You, Bridget at Readaholic

Blue Bells of Scotland has just made its first stop on its virtual tour. A virtual tour is the internet equivalent of a traditional book tour: the book goes out to reviewers who then post their reviews, which may include author interviews, author chats with readers, guest posts by the author, and/ or giveaways of the book.

On Sunday, Bridget at Readaholic posted the first virtual tour review of Blue Bells of Scotland, along with an author interview and a giveaway, open until November 19. Read Bridget's Review and sign up for the giveaway by clicking on the link.
If you are busy but love books, you will especially enjoy Bridget's site. She is a prolific reader, who specializes in short reviews, not only for the sake of not giving away too much, but because many of us simply do not have time to read lengthy reviews. Please check out her site. Enjoy! And thank you, Bridget!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Creating Character

As we're now a week into National Novel Writing Month, with over 120,000 members scribbling and typing away this year (join us, resistance is futile!-- www.nanowrimo.org), an article on writing seems appropriate.

Authors are often asked how they conjure up such vivid people and lives. The answer varies from author to author, from book to book, and from character to character.

Sometimes, characters just walk onstage, so to speak, fully formed, absolutely sure of who they are, and behave exactly as they please, regardless of the author's intentions. Diana Gabaldon, author of the Outlander series, says this is how Claire Beachamp Randall came to her. She simply walked into a shack full of Scottish Jacobites and announced herself in very un-18th Century language.

It is how Shawn and Niall came to me. They simply are who they are, they've never been anything else, and I couldn't make them be if I tried. Interestingly, this even goes for looks. I have had the experience twice now, of meeting someone who is the spitting image of the character I've been writing. Not that I had an exact face in mind. But somehow, sometimes, as an author, you see someone, and you just know: that's him!

Some characters walk onstage but are a little less clear. This is how Angus in The Minstrel Boy (Book 2) appeared. He walked up to Amy and gave her coffee. He has caused me no end of trouble by doing this, possibly altering the entire ending of the series from what I planned. And yet, he is rather reserved, and I'd spent quite a bit of time with him when one day he announced that he plays bagpipes. Now, why didn't he tell me that before?

Many characters are drawn from real life, modified from combinations of people we know, or saw in passing at the store, or spent a few days getting to know on a job somewhere. I recently read a quote in Voyager, by Diana Gabaldon, to the effect of writers being cannibals: we take various parts of people we know, mix them together, and let them simmer. Very true. Ironically, the quote was spoken by one of her characters.  Joan, the sad young woman who dyes and trims Niall's hair in The Minstrel Boy and later meets Shawn, is this sort:

While she heaved shirts from a tub, Joan continued the tale of Lady Christina chasing her husband down to the kitchens.  She told it with an ease that suggested long practice on this particular piece.  She told it like Amy played her favorite Telemann sonata, punctuating the story with staccatoed harrumphs and legato sighs; her voice rose and fell with precise dynamics, making it a masterpiece.  

Other aspects of Joan, however, are very unlike the person from whom this trait came. Of course, Joan also walked on stage fully formed, exactly as she was.

Then there are the characters that take actual work. You need a villain. Your main character needs a daughter. Your protagonist needs a boss. And you need to create them. There are many sites out there with 'character interviews' and 'character dossiers' of various lengths. One site I really like is www.storyright.com but there are plenty of them.

These interviews cover all aspects of a character-- what does he look like? Short, tall, heavy, thin, hair color and length, facial hair, neat, messy, what does he wear? What is his personality like? Outgoing, talkative, reserved, opinionated, slow to form an opinion, expressive, stoic, funny, serious? What kind of family did he come from? What is his education? When you've created the answers to enough of these questions, you begin to get a feel for who these people are.

You'll know you've done the job well when your characters start to act for themselves and ignore the outline you've spent months working out to perfection. This is a good thing, really! It means they've become real people, to you and to your readers.


If you liked this post, you might also like:
Creating Setting

Look for the WRITING WORKSHOP label at the bottom of this post

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Angus Og

Angus Og, Lord of the Isles--a strong and romantic moniker, evoking fascinating images even before you know anything about him; a name you can really sink your teeth into.

The irony is that Og actually means young. So this great man was really running around being called Junior. Hey, Junior, could you go slaughter the English battalion on my right? Junior, I need 20 galleys and a hundred of your strongest warriors.

I much prefer Angus Og!

His name aside, he was a fascinating man, yet another who deserves far more attention from history than what he has received. He looms large (a little historical humor, as some sources say he was small in stature) and colorful in Nigel Tranter's Bruce Trilogy. But when it comes to researching him, there is very little.

The facts that are known are minimal. He was the middle son of Angus Mor. (Mor is large, or elder, in Gaelic.) His older brother, Alexander, supported his brother-in-law, MacDougall, and the English. I have come across very little about his younger brother, Iain (or John) Sprangach, apart from learning that Angus Mor's lands in the western Isles of Scotland were originally split between the three sons. Angus Og received Kintyre and Mull.

angus og lord of the isle bannockburn bluebellstrilogy
In a fascinating web of family loyalties, influences, and motivations, we find that Angus Og's father, Angus Mor, and his uncle, Alisdair Mor, were continually at odds with their cousins, the MacDougalls (that would be Lame John of Lorne and his father, Alexander). In an attempt to heal that rift, Angus Og's older brother, Alisadiar Og, was married off to a MacDougall heiress.

Deepening the complexity of the situation, Angus Mor, Alisdair Mor, and Alisdair Mor's son Donald were most likely supporters of Robert Bruce against the English. It is true that Alisdair Mor and Donald both signed fealty to Edward I of England in 1291, but then, so did most Scottish nobles, including Bruce himself, under duress.

Alisdair Mor died in battle against his own kin, the MacDougalls, in 1299, and Angus Mor a year later in 1300, leaving Angus Og's older brother, Alisdair Og, as the head of the clan. Alisdair, being now more closely related to the MacDougall family, gave his allegiance to the MacDougalls and the English, even becoming Admiral of the Western Seas.

Angus Og appears to have possibly supported his brother briefly--very briefly, as he is thought to have been largely neutral by 1301. In 1306, the newly-crowned King Robert, in reality more a fugitive than a king, fled to the Western Isles, and sought refuge with Angus Og. His risk paid off richly, with Angus Og becoming one of his earliest and strongest friends and supporters, the more so when Angus Og's older brother Alisdair Og, was defeated in 1308 on the banks of the Dee in Galloway, by Edward Bruce.

One source says Alisdair Og disappeared into Ireland. Another states very specifically that he was first taken prisoner by Edward Bruce, escaped to Castle Swein (or Sween) in North Knapdale in western Scotland, recaptured by Robert Bruce, and imprisoned in Dundonald Castle in Ayrshire, where he soon died. Either way, this left Angus Og as clan leader, and the powerful new Lord of the Isles.

Donald MacDonald, in Clan Donald,says that Angus Og had supported the English, and had a sudden change of heart. He discusses and dismisses the idea that this change of heart sprang from self-interest, noting that supporting a fugitive is hardly a way to further one's own cause. He concludes, instead, that Angus Og was simply re-adopting the decade old loyalty of his father to the Bruce family's claim to the throne.

I do think it is also worth noting that Bruce and Angus Og shared a common enemy: the MacDougalls. Bruce came to Angus Og seeking asylum very close on the heels of his (Bruce's) defeats at the hands of John of Lorn at Dalry. And it is human nature that, 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend.'

From here on, Angus Og and his islemen warriors are repeatedly found by Bruce's side. Angus Og is reported to have been at the 1307 engagement in Galloway, in which Bruce's brothers, Thomas and Nigel, were captured. Angus's cousin Donald fought with Bruce to re-take Arran. This same Donald seems to have been present at one of Bruce's early parliaments in 1309.

One source says that Angus Og brought 5,000 of his Islemen to Bannockburn. Take this number with a grain of salt, as some sources put Bruce's entire force as low as 5 or 6,000, while others place it as high as 13,000. However, it is clear that Angus Og's men made up a large, no doubt vital, percentage of Bruce's army, considering he fought that day against an army that must have been a minimum of 20,000 men, possibly two or three times that many. (Once again, sources differ greatly on these numbers.)

Angus Og's men formed the reserve at Bannockburn. Bruce held them back until the critical moment, when the English cavalry were already in disarray, and then called them in to support Edward Bruce, on the right. The storming of the field by Angus Og and his Islemen is said to be one of the events that turned the battle. Both John Barbour and Walter Scott have immortalized not only Bannockburn, but Angus Og's part in it, in verse. Walter Scott puts it thus:

"One effort more and Scotland's free! Lord of the Isles, my trust in thee!"

It is since Angus Og's critical aid at Bannockburn that Clan Donald has forevermore been awarded the honor of holding the right wing in the royal army.

Not much is written of Angus Og's activities in the wake of Bannockburn, except to say that he was granted extensive lands by Bruce and remained Bruce's steadfast friend and ally the remainder of their lives. There is an interesting story about the dowry brought by his bride--a large force of strong, young warriors--and he went on to have two sons, Good John of Islay, and Iain (that's two sons named John, isn't it?) and two daughters (I hope they weren't also named John!)

Bruce died in 1329 and Angus Og soon after in 1330. He is buried on Iona, the traditional burial ground of the Kings of Scotland, under a tomb bearing his arms: a ship with furled sail, a standard, a lion, and a tree.

[As an interesting side note, Angus Mor, father of Angus Og, is also a many-times great grandfather of Lady Diana Spencer, Winston Churchhill, George I, and Louis XVII.]

Thank you, Buffalo Books

I had my first book signing for Blue Bells of Scotland yesterday at Buffalo Books in Buffalo, MN. I was happy with the turnout, and would like to thank Ho, the owner, and his staff, Liz, Hilary, and Daryn, for a very pleasant experience. They had things very nicely set up for me, and complimentary lattes. All in all, a very good day!
Thank you, Buffalo Books!

Isabel MacDuff, Woman in a Cage

Isabel MacDuff did not much care for her lodgings at Berwick Castle.

Isabel MacDuff is a woman who deserves more attention than she has gotten, at least on this side of the Atlantic. Although a minor player in history, her courage, strength, and patriotism put her on a level with the greats. Her story officially begins with her birth in 1286, within months of the fateful death of Alexander III, which threw Scotland into such turmoil. Thus, she would have grown up in the days of upheaval, of Edward Longshanks, Hammer of the Scots' invasions of Scotland, through the days of the Guardianship-- her father, Duncan MacDuff, was one of the Guardians--and John Baliol's failed kingship, through the events of William Wallace's uprisings against England.

In an explanation of the events to follow, it is important to know that the MacDuff clan held a hereditary right to crown the Kings of Scotland. In a more direct explanation of Isabel's Scottish patriotism, her mother, widowed when Isabel was about three, re-married one Sir Gervase Avenel, who gave his fealty to Robert the Bruce early on.

What complicated matters for Isabel, and tested her determination and courage, was the fact that her brother was growing up as a ward fo the English court, perhaps even as a companion of the young Edward II. Moreover, in 1306, aged 19 or 20, Isabel married John Comyn, Earl of Buchan. John Comyn was a supporter of John Baliol and enemy of Robert Bruce. It was John's cousin, also John Comyn, but Earl of Badenoch, whom Robert Bruce stabbed to death before the altar of Greyfriars Church in Dumfries on February 10, 1306, cementing the Comyn family's hatred of Bruce.

This incident, perhaps, changed Isabel's life.

Bruce, knowing he would be excommunicated for killing a man on holy ground, and knowing an excommunicated man could not be crowned king, did the only sensible thing in a time without e-mail: he dashed for Scone, the traditional crowning place of the Scottish kings, in a race against the messengers flying to the Pope with news of the Greyfriarsmurder and the messengers speeding back equally hastily with news of his excommunication.

Isabel, however she heard the news of Bruce's flight to Scone for coronation, determined that, as her young brother was in England, unable to claim the MacDuff family's right, she would do so herself, against the obvious wishes of her new husband. One story says she stole her husband's horses. Other sources say that, as Lord John was in England at the time, there was no need for deception, and she merely rode off. The first story is more interesting, though perhaps less accurate.

Despite her best efforts, Isabel arrived in Scone the day after Bruce's coronation. However, her efforts meant a great deal to him. He'd already been deprived, by Edward I, of the traditional coronation stone, the Stone of Scone (which contrary to appearances does not rhyme: it's pronounced scoon). Without the traditional elements of coronation, the Stone and a MacDuff to crown him, he worried that his kingship would be viewed as less than completely legitimate. Therefore, the coronation ceremony was re-enacted on the 25th of March, 1306, when Isabel MacDuff, Countess of Buchan, set the crown on the head of Robert the Bruce, making him (for the second time in two days) King of Scotland.

(Just to be as accurate as possible, other sources put the re-crowning on March 27, 1306.)

Having no future with her husband after this act, Isabel stayed on with the Bruce's. However, Scotland was a country under attack. Bruce was a man very badly wanted by Edward, and not well liked by the vast reaches of Clan Comyn and their allies, either. In July 1306, he sent his wife, sisters, daughter, and Isabel to Kildrummy Castle for safety, under the protection of his brother Nigel (or Neil as he was also known).

Unfortunately, Bruce had many enemies. Kildrummy was attacked in September of 1306. Though the women escaped the castle, they were captured by William, Earl of Ross, while fleeing north, and taken to Edward Longshanks in England. Bruce's wife, Elizabeth, was treated perhaps the most kindly, the fortunate result of her also being the daughter of Edward's ally, the Earl of Ulster. But Bruce's ten-year-old daughter, Marjory, was from his first marriage, and therefore no concern to Edward; she was incarcerated at Watton Priory. His sister, Christina, was locked in a nunnery for years. Nigel met the most unpleasant face, being publicly tortured and executed in most barbaric fashion by Edward I.

Remains of Berwick CastleBruce's other sister, Mary, received more of Edward's wrath. She and Isabel were both ordered by Edward I to live in cages hung on castle walls. Mary spent several years suspended on the outer walls of Roxburgh, and Isabel, for the crime of placing the crown on Bruce's head and defying her husband, was likewise suspended on the walls of Berwick castle.

This site on Edward II gives the clearest description I have yet found on the conditions Isabel suffered. It describes the cage as made of lattice wood and iron hinges. It was open for all to see, allowing her only the privacy of a privy. She was exposed to the elements and the ridicule of the English people, though allowed two women to bring her food and drink. This page gives the date of her release as June 1310-- nearly four years in a cage.

Having been quite cold while I was in Scotland in late May and early June, I can hardly imagine what it must have been like to live exposed to the elements, even through winter, for four years. She was reputedly held in continued captivity even after her release from the cage. Sources differ as to whether she died in captivity or survived it.

I am pleased to have found that there is a novel written about Isabel MacDuff. Barbara Erskine's Kingdom of Shadows focuses on the life of this fascinating woman. I had recently been told about Barbara Erskine's novels set in medieval Scotland, and planned to find some and start reading, anyway. Now, I have double reason to do so.

Sailing Over Land

One of the lesser known but more interesting stories from the time of Robert the Bruce is the sea battle against Sir John of Lorne-- more colorfully known as Lame John of Lorne or Ian Bacach.

Readers of the Blue Bells Trilogy will be familiar with the MacDougalls. Lame John was the son of Alexander MacDougall. Alexander MacDougall, uncle to John Comyn who was murdered by Bruce, died a few years before Bannockburn, according to most sources. Nigel Tranter does put an Alexander MacDougall at the August 1314 council, as one of many who sided with the English but quickly came back into the peace of Robert the Bruce afterward. On the part of Bruce, his famed mercy was not merely mercy, but the hope of a practical man who believed his country would be stronger if he could finally bring his people together, rather than having them fight against one another. To this end, he offered mercy for the price of allegiance.

Lame John did not accept this offer of peace, but continued to serve Edward II of England, as admiral in the western Isles. Having decreed that Scotland must stand united, Bruce did not care overly much for having Edward II's ships in his Sound of Jura. Dates are uncertain: some sources indicate as early as June 1315, a year to the day after Bannockburn, while others suggest it took place in 1316 or even 1317. Many writings I've found are written such that it's difficult to tell what date they're really saying, or whether they're giving one at all.

Regardless of which year it took place, it's a fascinating battle and a fascinating look at Bruce, who once again showed his ingenuity and ability to use everything he had, even history and superstition.

This is one of many battles in which the colorful Angus Og, Lord of the Isles, worked side by side as one of Bruce's most loyal supporters. It was his fleet that transported his own Islemen and Bruce's warriors. Half the fleet, under Angus Og, sailed around and up the western shore of Kintyre, into the southern Sound of Jura where Lame John's fleet lay.  At the same time, Bruce's men sailed up the eastern shore of the peninsula, where there is no outlet.

Toward the north of Kintyre, however, is East Loch Tarbert. Bruce's men sailed into East Loch Tarbert, and from there, constructed either a gangway of planks, or a series of logs, which acted as rollers. When this was done, the men hauled the galleys, with ropes, up onto the rollers, and between pulling and opening the sails to catch the wind, Bruce sailed a mile overland, into West Loch Tarbert. From there, presumably with men exhausted from days of rowing, chopping, and hauling ships, Bruce sailed into the north of the Sound of Jura.

Part of the genius of Bruce's plan, even apart from the element of surprise-- there was no waterway to allow ships to surprise John from the north-- was that it played on an old superstition. In 1098, Magnus Barefoot, King of Norway, had done the same thing. Among the Islemen, it was believed that when their enemy once again sailed overland like Magnus Barefoot, they would be conquered. It had much the same effect as re-enacting an Arthurian legend to beat down the enemy's morale. It also would most likely have boosted the morale of his own men, who must have been exhausted by this point.

In the words of John Barbour, medieval author of The Brus: "For they knew by an old prophecy that whoever should have ships go between those seas with sails would so win the Isles for himself that no one could withstand him by force. Therefore, they all came to the King and none withstood his commands apart from John of Lornalone." (Of course, he said it in medieval Englys.)

Lame John's fleet was now caught between Angus Og coming up from the south and Robert Bruce coming down from the north. Between the clear military problem and the superstitions of his men, John of Lorn had little chance. Nigel Tranter paints a colorful picture of the event, describing it as taking place in the few hours of near dark at Midsummer's Night, with torches lighting up close to the water, along the lines of Bruce's and Angus Og's galleys to signal one another, and John driving his fleet hard to the west, trying futilely to escape the trap.

The battle in the Sound of Jura was over swiftly, the isles completely under the power of Robert Bruce and Angus Og, and John of Lorn not to live many months beyond that event.


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National Novel Writing Month

Sign-ups have started! Go to National Novel Writing Month and join the fun! If you've always wanted to write a novel, November is the time to do it. This is for fun. Just sit down and start typing.


No plot? No problem! There are plenty of forums with ideas, and specific threads for plot adoption. Not sure what to do with a plot problem? No problem. Go to the Plot Doctoring thread where plenty of people will give all sorts of ideas for painting yourself out of the corner you may have painted yourself into. Can't find the information you need on seventeenth century French cooking utensils? Try Character and Plot Realism Q & A.

Need to engage in the time-honored novelists practice of procrastination? Go to the clubs threads. Meet noveling musicians, noveling parents, noveling 30-somethings, noveling Christians, anyone and everyone. It's lots of fun to meet others who share the same interest. And if you want to get together in person, there are regional groups that arrange write-ins. Small groups get together at local coffeeshops, set up our laptops and type away with our lattes.

And most years, Createspace.com or lulu.com will print and ship your novel for free if you win-- which means if you type 50,000 words in November and upload it for verification at nanowrimo.
Hope to see you there!

Nigel Tranter

I discovered Nigel Tranter in a 14th Century castle tower, with the gray stones rising all around us, and the chirpy clerk waiting hopefully at her cash register for us to choose from the array of shiny, plastic trinkets, whiskey bottles, and colorful books about Castle Doune.


I don't know why Nigel Tranter caught my eye, but he did: a thick, green book with an archaic painting of Robert the Bruce in a flowing red beard adorning the front. The book was The Bruce Trilogy, a collection of Tranter's three novels about Robert the Bruce. It was so much of what I had gone to Scotland to learn, wrapped up in one giant volume. I considered the price and the exchange rate, and reluctantly left it on the shelf. Within minutes of getting home, I hit amazon and found a used copy for significantly less.

It arrived in days, and for several days afterward, I was lost in the world of Robert the Bruce-- as a hot-headed young man, as the eager, new husband of Elizabeth deBurgh, as both friend and enemy of Edward Longshanks, "The Hammer of the Scots."

In between reading of Bruce living in a cave, hunted by Longshanks, ferrying in secret across swamps, and reigning supreme at Bannockburn against impossible odds, I read up on Nigel Tranter himself. A native of Glasgow, he is a man who deserves far more recognition on our side of the Atlantic. He is a prolific author in the worlds of both fiction and non-fiction. His fiction alone spans from children's books to historical fiction to Westerns and contemporary and adventure novels. His non-fiction is a testament to his love of Scotland, covering castles, counties, and landscapes.

While we all have different opinions of what good historical fiction is, I personally like historical accuracy. There are those authors with reputations for playing fast and loose with historical facts, twisting facts to fit the story they wish to tell. Tranter, by contrast, has a reputation for impeccable research, down to the fine details. There are those storytellers, for instance, who have liked to dramatize the death of Longshanks in ways it didn't actually happen. When you read Tranter's historical fiction, you will read something very close to the historical record, in story form.
Among Tranter's novels, I have only been lucky enough to read The Bruce Trilogy so far, but thoroughly enjoyed the detailed look at one of Scotland's-- I would even say the world's-- greatest men. We see the forces that shaped him, turning him from a reckless young man with a hot temper, to a firm and determined leader, capable of taking on the greatest army the world had ever seen, with his small band of 5 or 6,000, and not only surviving, but triumphing, and turning Scotland's fate.
If you love Scotland or medieval times, I consider The Bruce Trilogy a must read.

Fighting Saints-- We're Not Talking Sports

A modern saying is there are no atheists in foxholes. I would assume that's true. But it is interesting to look at the confluence of warfare and religion in medieval times, a very different situation than we have today.

In medieval times, there was, I believe, a much deeper and more widespread trust in saintly and heavenly intercession. The Battle of Lepanto, for instance, which marked the end of the Crusades, is associated in many minds, with the Rosary. On the morning of October 7, 1571, Don John, son of Emperor Charles V, sailed his fleet into battle, despite all military and weather factors being against him. On his ship, he carried an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe-- an event which had happened only 40 years before this. And as Don John prepared for battle, Pope Pius V, with many others, was praying the Rosary for him, back at the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. Don John's 65,000 men, themselves, recited the Rosary for three hours prior to attacking. The end of the story is that the wind suddenly changed-- inexplicably and mysteriously, according to witnesses-- and Don John went on to an incredible victory, which he credited entirely to the intercession of Mary.

I was recently given the book "By Sword and Fire: Cruelty and Atrocity in Medieval Warfare" by Sean McGlynn. (It was my birthday present. Men, please make note of this. Your wives and girlfriends will love this book! Seriously.) Mr. McGlynn makes a brief note of the belief in heavenly and saintly intervention. He notes a number of heavenly interventions:


  • A defendant in the 1170's credits his victory in trial by battle to having asked the aid of St. Thomas Becket the Martyr.
  • William Crak, hung for multiple homicides in 1291, asked the help of Thomas Cantiloupe, bishop (Bishop Cantiloupe--that's pretty funny!  Get it?  A bishop can't elope!) of Hereford until 1252, who appears, according to reports, to have brought him back to life. Thomas Cantiloupe seems to have been a favorite intercessor for those going to the gallows. (If he had any sense of humor, he'd be interceding for those considering marriage. There are those pundits, of course, who would equate the two.)
  • Saints Benedict, Ethelreda, and Sexburga are credited with the successful jailbreak of one Bricstan, wrongly imprisoned.


Mr. McGlynn mentions several others, and in contexts which the modern reader might find amusing. However, the point is, saints were much more routinely invoked and credited with intercession in medieval days than they are now.

Some of the interesting stories I've come across, pertaining specifically to the times and people of the Blue Bells Trilogy, are the story of St. Bee's, a parish in England, which comes up in The Minstrel Boy (Book 2 of the Trilogy), and the story of Robert the Bruce carrying relics with him into the battle of Bannockburn.

St. Bee's is a beautiful, twelfth-century abbey in York, England. The story behind the name is that one St. Bega, an Irish princess, fled Ireland to escape marriage to a Viking prince. Meeting Lord Egremont, she requested land to found a nunnery. He granted her a cruel promise that Midsummer's Day: he would give her all the land covered by snow on the following morning. The last laugh was on Lord Egremont, as the next morning-- a day in late June-- three miles of his land was covered by snow. Interestingly, St. Bee, or St. Bega, whichever you prefer, is associated with another miracle also involving snow.

Robert the Bruce is reputed to have been a devout Catholic. He carried the relics of two different saints into battle, and invoked the names of several others. The BBC page on the Battle of Bannockburn recounts how Bruce brought the Monymusk Reliquary, or the Breccbennach, which contained the relics of St. Columba, into battle. On the morning of the battle, the entire Scots army, some five to six thousand, knelt before the barefoot and blind Abbot Maurice of Inchaffrey for Mass and final absolution before facing death. Bruce himself invoked the aid of St. Andrew, the patron saint of Scotland, St. Thomas Beckett, and John the Baptist, on whose feast day the battle of Bannockburn occurred.

By far the most interesting story, however, is the story of St. Fillan, a follower of St. Columba, and Robert Bruce. The priest who had charge of the relics, afraid for the safety of one of Scotland's treasures, was hesitant to bring them to a battle against the reputed 'largest army the world had ever seen' of Edward II. So he brought only the silver case that usually carried the arm bone. (As an aside, St. Fillan had one of the more interesting left arms in the history of mankind. I will cover that in a later post.)

On the evening before battle, Bruce stayed in his tent in prayer to God, and imploring St. Fillan, too, for his intercessory prayers before God. As he prayed, there came a great crack of sound and flash of light from the reliquary, and the silver case flew open, showing the arm bone of St. Fillan. The priest in charge of the relics rushed in, and, seeing them, proclaimed a miracle, confessing to the Bruce that he had left the armbone itself behind in safety.

There may or may not be atheists in modern foxholes, but I think it's a safe bet there were definitely none in medieval foxholes.

Diana Gabaldon

I have planned from the start to bring up other authors of historical or time travel fiction, and the night after almost meeting Diana Gabaldon, queen of historical time travel fiction, seems like the perfect time.
Diana Gabaldon-- pronounced GA bul dohn, short a-- writes the Outlander books, a series now numbering seven, which follows the lives of Claire Beauchamp Fraser, accidental time traveling World War II battlefield nurse, and her 18th Century Highlander husband, Jamie Fraser. The books now span from Scotland and France in the years before the final uprising of Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1746 to Colonial America during the Revolution. Diana reported last night that there will indeed be an eighth book.
As to the books, I enjoy them. That's not surprising, since they contain some of the same elements as mine. In fact, I first heard of Diana Gabaldon when I told people what my novel was about and they asked if it was anything like hers. I was intrigued and started buying copies as I stumbled across them in thrift stores. I find her to be a skilled writer who tells a good story. I appreciate the research that goes into her novels, the detailed descriptions, and the excellent characterization. It's easy to see and feel everything.

One of the things I truly appreciate about Diana's writing is that, unlike some writers of historical fiction, she does not try to force modern viewpoints on Jamie. He is at times decidedly uncomfortable with some of Claire's 20th century ways, as I think an 18th century man would be.
There are hundreds upon hundreds of reviews of Diana Gabaldon's work out there. My own is, if you like historical fiction, time travel, or Scotland, if you like a good story, definitely give the Outlander series a try.
But as to almost meeting Diana herself, I stood at the edge of a good-sized crowd at the Barnes and Noble in St. Paul's Har Mar Mall last night. Although I saw her walk right by on her way to start speaking, there was a rather large bookshelf (not that Barnes and Noble has any other kind) in my way, so I heard, rather than saw, her speak, and found her to be a charming and humorous woman. Here is a true Renaissance woman with at least three degrees, a background in marine biology and computers, who also writes comic books for Walt Disney and historical time travel romance adventures! Now that's diversity, not to mention grabbing life by the horns and making it your own.

But I was impressed, too, by her thoughtfulness. Apparently, we were supposed to call in advance for numbers, to get books signed. However, she asked that people with handicaps and mothers with small children please come forward first. That consideration impressed me.
And the reason, of course, that I didn't entirely get to meet her, was that I had to get home to my own children. So, I'm glad I went, I enjoyed hearing her talk, I recommend her books, and hopefully another day, I'll get to actually meet her.

The Symbolism of Jewels and Flowers in Medieval Society

Symbolism was a powerful part of medieval life. It seems everything was invested with deep symbolic value, as opposed to our more modern tendency to view things on a more surface level.


As we toured Stirling Castle in May of 2008, we viewed the incredible set of Unicorn Tapestries. These really deserve--and probably will eventually get--a topic to themselves. Suffice it to say for now, what struck me was our tour guide's comment that what is merely a pretty, crowded picture to a modern viewer was an entire story to a medieval viewer.

While we see simply men hunting a unicorn, they saw a secular story of "the search and capture of the lover bridegroom" (quote from the Metropolitan Museum's site, linked above), or a Christian allegory of Christ's persecution and suffering. We see a garden like any other; the red and white roses tell the medieval viewer of Mary's charity and virginity.


My real foray into the world of medieval symbolism came when I started researching the wedding of Niall and Allene. Today, brides adorn themselves with flowers and jewels-- whatever looks nice, whatever might have sentimental family value, whatever might go well with the chosen wedding colors. A medieval bride, however, told the world of her hopes and beliefs, of her values, who she herself was, by the flowers and gems she wore.

Among stones, white jasper stood for gentleness, red jasper for love, and green jasper for faith. The amethyst, emerald, and sapphire, three of our modern birthstones, symbolized respectively in those days Christ's martyrdom, Christian hope, and 'heaven-bound.' A thorough discussion of the medieval view of stones can be found here for the interested reader. It goes quite a bit beyond the scope of symbolism, but explains the roots of this symbolism.

Going back to symbolism as it relates to the medieval bride, she might also typically wear a crown of orange blossoms, woven with various flowers, or weave flowers into her hair. Including a small bouquet of herbs-- especially rosemary for remembrance, sage for wisdom, thyme, and basil, or, according to other sources, wheat-- symbolized luck and fertility. Some sources specify that medieval brides carried bouquets of only herbs, no flowers, while others state that orange blossoms represented happiness and fertility, lilies stood for purity, and ivy for fidelity.

Medieval and Music Fiction

As I've researched more into the world of medieval Scotland, my interest in other fiction set in medieval times has grown. I was lucky enough to find Nan Hawthorne's site Medieval Novels which aims to be a comprehensive list of fiction set in medieval times. She has arranged her page in several helpful ways-- by time periods, by genres (mystery, fantasy and time travel, for instance), by region, by historical figures, by new releases. Whatever time, person, or genre interests you, there is a category. I found a wealth of books, new and old, set in all parts of the medieval world; books by well-known authors and books by newer authors.


For a Shelfari group discussion, I did some research into medieval fiction specifically with strong musical themes, settings, or characters. I found very few. In addition to my own novel, which centers on the star member of a modern orchestra, and a harp-playing medieval warrior, there is Rose Tremain's Music and Silence, set in 1600's Denmark. Her central character is the angelic-faced Peter Claire, lutist. It is a fascinating look at the life of a court musician, and King Christian IV of Denmark. If you like the dream-like, wandering style of writing, this book will definitely appeal to you. Although not my favorite style, I did enjoy the book.

There is also Norah Lofts The Lute Player: A Novel of Richard the Lion-Hearted, king of England in the last days of the twelfth century. It focuses on Richard's lute player, Blondel, and his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine. I have not read this book, but Norah Lofts is a prolific writer with a strong reputation in the field of historical fiction, and I believe it would be well worth my while to track down a copy (it was published in 1951) and give it a try. I'd be interested in hearing from anyone who has read it.
There are certainly hundreds, even thousands, of books on either medieval times or musical themes, but finding ones that combine the two seems to be a needle hunt in a haystack. If you, the reader, know of others, please leave a comment.

More on Hogmanay

Hogmanay is the Scottish New Year's Eve celebration that occurs in The Minstrel Boy, book 2 of The Blue Bells Trilogy.

Its roots go back so far that the origin of the word itself is no longer known for sure, but here are a few contestants that have been put forth to vie for the title of Root of Hogmanay:


  • Hoggo-nott, the Scandinavian word for the feast just before Yule.
  • Hoog min dag, the Flemish words for great love day (sounds more like Valentine's Day)
  • Haleg monath, Anglo-Saxon for holy month
  • oge maidne, Gaelic for new morning (but aren't there many of these in a year?)
  • Homme est ne, French for Man is Born.
My secret source calls this the most likely root of hogmanay, particularly given the Norman tradition of giving gifts at that time, referred to as hoguignetes.  It is recorded by Scotch Presbyterian Eloquence, 1693, that the Scots had a similar tradition of going door to door on New Year's Eve, giving gifts as they called, Hagmane!


hogmanay, new year's eve, new year's eve traditions, baccanalian, revelry, scotland, scottish traditions
We are more sure of the origins of the festivity itself, believing it originated in deep winter celebrations of sun and fire, and moved from there into the Roman Saturnalia, a Baccnalian event if ever there was one. The Reformation drove much of the Hogmanay celebrations underground until the 17th Century, and in recent years, they have become far more extravagant even than what most of the 20th Century knew.  Lesser known is that Christmas itself was forbidden after the Reformation--regarded as a 'Popish' or Catholic feast.  This left Hogmanay as a time of celebration and gift-giving.

One old Hogmanay tradition that I'm sure would go over well in modern America was to dress up in cattle hide and run around the village, getting hit by sticks.  Or, to spell it out a little more accurately:

One man would dress in the hide of a 'mart cow,' meaning a cow killed on Martinmass (November 11).  This 'hide' included hooves and tail.  The other men would beat on the hide, raising ruckus, and pound on the doors of homes, calling for the occupants to come out.  When the door was opened, a song was sung asking to be let in.  This is one possible rhyme or song:

A Challain a’ bhuilg bhuidhe bhoicinn,
Buail an craiceann (air an tobhta)
Cailleach sa chill,
Cailleach sa chùil,
Cailleach eile ‘m cùil an teine,
Bior ‘na dà shùil,
Bior ‘na goile
A ‘Challainn seo:
Leig a-staigh mi.
The Callain of the yellow bag of hide,
Strike the skin (upon the wall) –
An old wife in the graveyard,
An old wife in the corner,
Another old wife beside the fire,
A painted stick in her two eyes,
A pointed stick in her stomach,
This Callainn:
Let me in, open this


Hogmanay celebrations these days are large events, often held at castles. They include music of all sorts, rock bands, pipe bands, drinking, revelry, lots of kissing-- it is New Year's Eve, after all--fire ceremonies, swinging fire balls, fireworks, and singing of Auld Lang Syne. In smaller towns, Hogmanay may be celebrated with ceilidhs (dances).

COMING SOON:
  • I will be co-hosting my first radio program at 950 AM on January 28.  Details to come.
  • I'll be reading and signing books February 10, 2017 at Magers and Quinn with Genny Kieley
CURRENTLY:
  • There is currently a giveaway going on at my facebook page for a puzzle of the misty Glenmirril Tower.  Leave a comment here or at my facebook page to be entered.
To learn more about my books, click on the images below.

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If you liked this article, you might also like
The Medieval Christmas Season, Medieval Easter Carols or
other posts under the SCOTTISH TRADITIONS label