Friday, May 29, 2015

Hidden Assets

By now, it should be obvious that I am both a historian and a total book geek. I’m married to an academic, too, so the house groans with books. They lie three rows deep on the bookcases that line most rooms; they dot coffee and side tables, they lie in piles on the floor and form makeshift shelves under the desks. They lurk in iPad apps and online, waiting for their moment to shine. They are, without a doubt, the most valuable things we own: old books, Russian books, books that have survived a fire and leave smudges on the fingers of would-be readers. Most of the time, I know where mine are, but try finding a specific title when it means shifting a row of DVDs and plowing past sideways stacks and double verticals and books plucked from their usual locations because I started looking for something and had to stop before I was done. Move one, and only divine providence can shine a light on where it ends up.

The piles are particularly noticeable this week. I’ve been on writing vacation, and thanks to the efforts of my dedicated critique partners, The Swan Princess now has two solid first chapters, two more rapidly solidifying ones, and an amorphous mass that still needs to congeal into something readable. Part of this process involved researching superstitions and folk medicine among the Russians and Tatars—most notably, belief in the evil eye, widespread in Russia and Inner Asia as elsewhere around the world.

I began, as usual, on the Internet, where I pulled up some superb sources on Google Books—encyclopedias of women and childbirth, women and Islam, etc., the kind of tomes that sell for $300 a pop but will let you read a page or two for free. Then I remembered that somewhere in my study I had Nora Chadwick’s Oral Epics of Central Asia. Surely it would contain a mention of ghosts or goblins specific to the Tatar world.

It didn’t, in fact. More accurately, it had a lot, but the index did not list the particular demon mentioned in the encyclopedias. The book is still sitting on my desk waiting for a thorough go-through. But in the process, I discovered a ton of other material in books I had read years ago, information I hadn’t needed at the time I read it and so skipped over. These are the hidden assets of my post’s title. Among other things, I found:

  • an article detailing herbal cures for a wide variety of diseases, as practiced by Siberian peasants;
  • a second article in the same book about midwifery in the Russian village;
  • Will Ryan’s amazing The Bathhouse at Midnight: Magic in Russia (lots of information on the evil eye there, as well as the practice of “casting spells on the wind” against one’s enemies, from which comes the Russian word for “plague”);
  • George Lane’s Daily Life in the Mongol Empire, which discusses the overlap of Chinese, Islamic, and folk medicine among Nasan’s remote ancestors;
  • an article on childbirth customs in medieval Russia;
  • a translation of Alexander Afanasiev’s Russian Fairy Tales, which I had lost track of ever owning, because it was buried in row 3; and
  • Eve Levin’s Sex and Society in the World of the Orthodox Slavs, 900–1700, which I had definitely read and remembered but had forgotten contained quite so much fabulous information about attitudes toward everything from kissing to infanticide and the penalties for getting it wrong.

I could go on, but you get the point. There are many advantages—as well as a few disadvantages—of writing historical fiction from the perspective of a historian, but one of the best is the treasure trove of other people’s research decorating the bookshelves. Assuming, of course, that one can find the treasure map....

Image “Amulets against the Evil Eye” © 2006 FocalPoint, via Wikimedia Commons. Reused under the GNU Free Documentation License.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Interwoven Threads

History is messy, with overlapping stories and mixed points of view. Although historians do their best to stick to the documented facts, most acknowledge that their efforts can take them only so far. Accepted truths change depending on point of view: rich or poor, male or female, York or Lancaster. The best we can do is try to distill a coherent account out of whatever varied opinions we find in the historical record, admitting that the results are necessarily incomplete. So many individual perspectives have not survived in archival documents, assuming they ever existed in documentary form. Indeed, the inability to establish a single, final version of “what actually happened” (with apologies to Leopold von Ranke) keeps historians in business: we can always revisit old debates or generate new ones based on previously unexplored evidence.

Fiction, in contrast, tends to be neat. Sure, a given tale can follow large casts of characters through long, twisty plots. But good stories have structure, and structure demands a beginning, a middle, and an end. Everything has to hang together, or the reader loses interest. Plot consists not of random incidents but events carefully chosen to force the central character to change. Setting expresses the hero’s emotions at the moment in question; props and symbols foreshadow the eventual outcome. To paraphrase Anton Chekhov, a writer shouldn’t place a gun on the mantle at the beginning of the play unless she intends someone to fire it by the end. However winding the journey, the whole unwieldy vehicle of a novel staggers upward to an inevitable hilltop, then rolls down the far side to the resolution. That very neatness—the sense that here life makes sense, has a clear and identifiable purpose—constitutes much of the appeal of fiction for writer and reader.

But sometimes an author wants to show a more multifaceted, messier view of a chosen location in a specific time while retaining the advantages of fiction. These advantages include the novelist’s freedom to imagine the inner worlds of people living in the past—although, of course, novelists also have a responsibility to ensure that their medieval knights don’t talk and think like twenty-first-century technocrats. One option is to feature a family—or related families. By juggling different story lines and multiple points of view, an author can create a more journalistic portrayal than one finds in a typical novel. This is the approach Alan Geik has taken in his debut novel Glenfiddich Inn: baseball and radio, war and propaganda, scheming in business and on the stock market, politics, medicine, and the suffrage movement all find a place in his exploration of Boston in the years during and immediately following World War I. We discuss these topics and more during our interview,  held one hundred years, almost to the hour, after the sinking of the RMS Lusitania, an event with profound effects on his characters and the larger world they inhabit.

The rest of this text comes from New Books in Historical Fiction:

Boston in 1915 is a town on the move. Prohibition creates opportunities for corruption and evasion of the law. Stock scandals and political machinations keep the news wires humming. Women agitate for the vote, socialists for the good of the common man. A new sports phenomenon, the nineteen-year-old Babe Ruth, sparks enthusiasm for the local team by hitting one home run after another. A new invention called radio hovers on the brink of a technological breakthrough that threatens the established newspaper business.

Over it all hangs the shadow of what will soon be known as the Great War. Boston, like most US cities of the time, has large German and Irish populations that do not want to see their country fighting alongside Great Britain and France. Meanwhile, thousands of young men die daily in the trenches, and the RMS Lusitania sinks off the coast of Ireland, torpedoed by a German submarine captain who believes (perhaps rightly) that the British have stocked it with hidden munitions.

Through the overlapping stories of the Townsend and Morrison families in Glenfiddich Inn (Sonador Publishing, 2015), Alan Geik weaves these disparate threads into a compelling portrait of early twentieth-century Boston and New York.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Vessels Large and Small

I haven’t written a history post in a while, mostly because I haven’t had time to research much, although I did spend months last summer and early fall trying to figure out exactly what a bright, literate, interested, but professionally untrained sixteenth-century teenager would know about medicine, especially if she came from the upper strata of society. More specifically, what would she know about heart disease? How would she imagine it? How would she cure it?

Finding out the answers to these questions proved to be more difficult than I expected, but I did eventually learn enough about Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine (known throughout the medieval and early modern world) to get a sense of medical theory in 1530s Tataria. Hildegard von Bingen’s Physica was immensely helpful as evidence of herbal remedies in use in Europe at that time. Although the book itself was not well known then, it attests to a kind of on-the-ground practicality that Natalya Kolycheva, the senior female in my imaginary household, might have exhibited. I’m sure many more questions will arise as The Swan Princess progresses, but for the moment I’m in reasonable shape so far as medieval medicine is concerned. I can also look forward to the imminent publication of Toni Mount’s Dragon’s Blood and Willow Bark: The Mysteries of Medieval Medicine. With a title like that, the book’s got to contain a potion or two worth assigning to my heroine and those around her.

But if it’s not one thing, it’s another. Given that Natalya, bless her, is bent on traveling 400 miles despite being at death’s door, it seemed logical to me that she would go by water. I doubt it will surprise anyone to learn that in winter central and northern Russia is covered by snow and ice, and sledges drawn by sturdy horses have long provided swift and reliable transportation. But in spring and summer, the marshy ground turns to mud, then dries in unaccommodating ruts guaranteed to jolt a sick patient into agony, if not the next world, in no time flat. Since time immemorial, people have traveled along the rivers, which flow mostly north–south with tributaries flowing east–west and—in the case of the Dnieper, the Dvina, and the Volga—have their source in the Valdai Hills west of Moscow. The whole setup makes for an unparalleled transportation system that permits travel over thousands of miles with the occasional portage from one tributary to another.

So we are told in college. But just try to find out exactly what the boats looked like or how the rivers flowed in 1535. The Soviet state built a large reservoir in the middle of the Valdai Hills, so just determining what went where six centuries ago requires digging up old maps and balancing closeness to the time in question against the artistic license that mapmakers once permitted themselves. Anthony Jenkinson’s camels and bears and cormorants enliven his 1593 map no end, but it would be a mistake to take his delightful drawings as indicating the precision of a modern cartographer. And even when the maps seem good (I found an 18th-century specimen that looked pretty reliable), they may not include the exact tributaries I as a novelist need.

An article by the historian David Ransel—to whom I am now deeply indebted—alerted me to the detail that Dmitrov, a small principality about 45 miles northwest of Moscow that I had picked as my traveling party’s first stopping point, actually connects via a series of marshes and small rivers to the Volga, whence Natalya and her family can reach the White Lake with relative ease. A website listing all the routes that Vikings used to loot, pillage, and trade from Scandinavia to Constantinople and points east revealed several means by which my Russians could get from A to B seven hundred years later. Ransel again, in his book based on the diary of an 18th-century Dmitrov merchant, mentioned that the Valdai Hills were once the site of serious white water, endangering not only the inflexibly built merchant ships of the day but my novel’s plot. A heart patient shooting the rapids? Oops, back to the drawing board.

Then, as if that were not enough for one research adventure, I discovered that Russia in Muscovite times had almost no inns (a detail I had already suspected, but I had not realized the consequences). As a result, people either did not stop except to change horses (on land) or camped outdoors despite the swarms of gnats and black flies that rose from the marshes to torment everything that moved. Depending on the travelers’ social estate, they could stay with a fellow noble or in a handy peasant cottage or (especially if male) in a monastery. But foreign visitors often commented on the inadequate facilities for travelers and the consequent tendency to keep moving. Except for the rapids, which were a problem no matter what, floating along on a boat made reasonable sense. But the idea that a strict mother-in-law would casually wave her eighteen-year-old charge off to ride 400 miles with no supervision except that provided by a bunch of rough warriors defied belief. Back to the drawing board again.

In the end, none of these setbacks matter, of course. Research is fun; plot threads are always, to some extent, contrivances that can be overhauled; character triumphs, no matter what. But if there’s a moral to this story, it’s that no matter how long one studies a place and a time, there remains far more to be discovered. And despite the glorious riches of the Internet, finding the specifics in question can prove, at times, surprisingly difficult.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Proof of Ownership

It won’t be news to those who regularly follow me here and on social media that both I personally and Five Directions Press, the writers’ cooperative that publishes my books, have been upgrading our websites over the last two months. We’re very happy with the results of the move, and on the whole the process has gone smoothly, but there have been little hiccups here and there. So given that this blog is in part about technology as experienced by those who are not especially tech-savvy (me), I thought I’d share my headaches with verification to reassure those still wandering in the wilderness, bereft of map, that the confusion really isn’t their fault.

Let me say straight off that I love Google. I have at least three accounts for different things; it’s a great search engine; it hosted my site for years and still manages the domain names—and all without charging a cent (except for the domain name registration, of course). Without it, I could never have gotten as far as I have. So any complaints have to be balanced against the reality that I don’t pay for the service, other than by supplying information (willingly or otherwise) to the ever-present Google bots.

That said, dealing with Google’s help files is a nightmare. It’s hard to name another collection of support files on the Web that so effectively combines reams of information with an almost total absence of answers to the simplest questions. I tried for years to verify my website, managed and hosted by Google, on my Google+ account. No matter how often I searched the help files and followed their instructions to the letter, Google refused to recognize the HTML code supplied by Google as valid. I moved the site to Wix, and the next time I checked Google+, the site appeared as verified even though I hadn’t done a thing.

Redirecting the domain name to the Wix servers was another odyssey—complicated by the detail that although GoDaddy acts as my registrar, I don’t actually have an account there, because it’s all managed through Google. The Wix support files walked me through that one—and again, for Five Directions Press. Wix also got me through adding the Google Analytics codes to my sites.

So, you can imagine my surprise (although, really, I should have expected it!) when I tried to verify the sites through Google’s Webmaster Tools and was told that I couldn’t use Google Analytics for that purpose because “the Google Analytics code appears to be malformed.” Malformed? Seriously? Not only had Google generated the code, but it was right there, gathering data in another browser window!

Whatever. I watched a help video, which repeated information I had just read in a bunch of help files, none of which told me how to get access to the header code on my website or to upload the HTML file or even to correct the “malformed” code. Instead, video and text just told me what should happen in an ideal world. I added myself as a verified owner—zilch. I added myself on Google Analytics—nope. I tried a different site, clearly linked to the Google Analytics account—that wouldn’t verify either; its code was “malformed,” too. I logged out of one account and into another, more closely associated with the site I was trying to verify—nada.

All this wasted an insane amount of time that I could have spent writing. Finally, I logged into the Wix site and began searching its help files. At first, nothing came up, but after clicking on a few links about HTML, I found the step-by-step instructions for adding a Google verification code to the header text on my site. Less than a minute later, I was done. Google found its tag and departed happy, throwing up a green check mark to indicate its joy. I repeated the process with the other site, and I was all set. And I didn’t even have to edit the darned HTML itself, as I had tried and failed to do in all the years I left the sites in Google’s tender care.

So this story has a happy ending. And the moral, I suppose, is that it’s true: you get what you pay for. Fair enough. Still, if a company is going to go to the trouble of creating an extensive help system, wouldn’t it be worthwhile to make it useful? The professional coders who write their own HTML aren’t, for the most part, the people struggling with the free templates on Google Sites. It’s not enough to tell us that we have to add a tag to the <header> area if we don’t know where to find the header area on our sites. Because if we knew, we might not be writers. We could support ourselves by coding—or producing competent help files....

On another note, The Winged Horse was featured a couple of weeks ago as part of Steve Wiegenstein’s series on the M. M. Bennetts Award long list. You can see the questions, answers, and overview on his blog.

Image no. 15328264 from

Friday, May 1, 2015

Turning Tables

Once in a while, I like to invite another author to guest post on my blog. This week, I pass the hat to Michael Schmicker, whose novel The Witch of Napoli came out earlier this spring to great acclaim. I loved it, and when you read this post, you will have a good idea why. Plus it’s always fun—especially with a historical novel—to see where an author got his or her ideas and how s/he transformed research into fiction. And with that, I retreat into the wings and leave the stage to Mike. If you’d like to find out more about him and his books, his contact information is at the end of the post.

From Mike

I had fun writing The Witch of Napoli.

The novel was inspired by the true-life story of Eusapia Palladino (1854–1918)—a middle-aged Neapolitan peasant woman who levitated tables and conjured up spirits of the dead in dimly lit séance rooms all across Europe at the end of the 19th century. Her psychokinetic powers baffled Nobel Prize-winning scientists and captivated aristocracy from Paris to Vienna. Her scandalous flirtations, her meteoric rise to fame, her humiliating fall and miraculous redemption, made world headlines at the time—when she died, she was famous enough to earn an obituary in the New York Times.

When you start with a life like hers, the story writes itself.

The fiery personality of my fictional heroine Alessandra closely mimics the real Palladino. Eusapia was hot-tempered, amorous, vulgar, confident—in a Victorian age where respectable women were insipid saints on a pedestal, stunted socially, sexually, intellectually, economically. She allowed strange men to sit with her in a darkened room holding her hands and knees and legs (“proper” women would have fainted or thrown themselves off a precipice if caught in that situation). She flirted and teased her male sitters, argued loudly, slapped an aristocrat who insulted her, flew at men who accused her of cheating (even when she did). Yet she was also extremely kind and generous to anyone in trouble, loved animals, gave to beggars. Her heart was large.

I did add a strong dash of Hollywood to the novel. Unlike the real Palladino, the fictional Alessandra is married to a sadistic gangster; she channels Savonarola, the famous 15th-century Dominican heretic burned at the stake; she falls in love with her upper-class mentor; she has a secret bastard; and the Catholic Church blackmails her. Pure fiction, all of it—but I like melodrama. Emotion and conflict create the beating heart of any gripping story.

Plotting was easy. I compressed 20 years of Palladino’s extraordinary life into a short 12 months but kept the factual arc of her controversial career intact. She’s discovered, tested, convinces Continental scientists her paranormal powers are real. England’s Society for Psychical Research (the novel’s fictitious London Society for the Investigation of Mediums) remains suspicious, invites her to England, catches her red-handed cheating. She returns home in disgrace. French and Italian scientists hang tough and demand one, final test. The winner-take-all showdown takes place in Naples. All true, by the way.

And those dramatic table levitations—surely they’re merely the product of the author’s imagination? Yes, some are. But others are slightly modified descriptions of spooky phenomena investigators actually witnessed at a sitting (she did hundreds, over two decades). Scientists today still heatedly debate whether Palladino was genuine or a complete fraud. She was caught cheating multiple times, yet she also produced, under extremely strict scientific controls, some of the most baffling and impressive feats of psychokinesis ever observed or photographed. Wikipedia owns the bully pulpit on Palladino but serves up a disappointing, simplistic dismissal of the best evidence for her genuineness, promoting instead a carefully curated collection of predominately skeptical experts and quotes. If there’s an afterlife, you can bet Palladino is fuming, fists raised.

My personal opinion? Palladino during her long career produced some genuine (though not necessarily supernatural) telekinetic effects. What do I base my opinion on? Primarily on parapsychological experiments confirming the reality of psychokinesis, which I describe in my nonfiction book Best Evidence; plus the exhaustive, 283-page Fielding Report published by England’s Society for Psychical Research, documenting the ten baffling sittings they conducted with Palladino in Napoli in 1908. Wikipedia whips up a whirlwind of speculation—from armchair critics who weren’t there—as to how Palladino might have cheated; I prefer the conclusion penned by the three veteran investigators who were actually there:

“With great intellectual reluctance, though without much personal doubt as to its justice ... we are of the opinion that we have witnessed in the presence of Eusapia Palladino the action of some kinetic force, the nature and origin of which we cannot attempt to specify, through which, without the introduction of either accomplices, apparatus, or mere manual dexterity, she is able to produce the movement of … objects at a distance from her and unconnected to her in any apparent physical manner.”

Somewhere, Eusapia is smiling.

You can find out more about Michael Schmicker at his website, friend him on Facebook, or follow him on GoodReads, Twitter, or Google+. The Witch of Napoli is available in print and for Kindle at