The U.S. Department of Commerce recognized the date of November 1st as National Author’s Day in 1949. We think it is a holiday to be celebrated!
And what better way to celebrate it than with a Guest Blog post from our Author Friend, Jeri Westerson!
Being a Writer
I’ve just heard the announcement for the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature…and again, it wasn’t me. Well, I expected no less. I don’t write lyrical poetry or deep treatises on the state of humanity. I write what is sometimes sneeringly called “popular literature” by the illuminati. Genre. It’s not literary fiction and it’s not bestseller material. “I put the litter in literature!” But that’s not a truly fair assessment either. I know that Raymond Chandler, one of my literary heroes for being one of the creators of the hardboiled detective and giving us the white knight Philip Marlowe, tried for most of his life to get his work recognized as great literature. He got that recognition in England, but not in America. Nowadays they teach college courses on Chandler’s work. You just have to be dead to get respect in America, I guess.
Not that I’m complaining. I happen to have it pretty good. I get to write the kind of stuff I wanted to read; a hardboiled detective in a medieval setting. I still get to do all the fun historical research, write about that as well as the real history happening in England in the fourteenth century, but I also get to throw in a murder with a very clever detective with a layered angsty backstory. And weapons. We get to do some stuff with weapons; daggers, swords. Fun stuff. More on that in a minute.
I’m lucky that I have several novels in the series on bookstore shelves with more on the way. Even luckier that the sales from those books allows me to write full time now. That’s not always the case with my fellow authors, some of whom have far more books on bookstore shelves. (I cheat. I have a husband who supports us. My earnings pay for my travel and promotional expenses. No, it’s not the industry to get into if you want to get rich quick, J.K. Rowling notwithstanding. She’s one of the one tenth of one percent of authors in that league.) No, ladies and gentlemen, you do this because you love to do this. Nay, have to do this. You have stories to tell and you want others to step into the worlds you create, even if those worlds really did exist some six hundred years ago.
Some people think that writing an historical has its disadvantages. That detectives didn’t have access to the forensic science we’ve all become accustomed to. Something as simple as fingerprinting would have no meaning to a society that wasn’t oriented to specific identities, where people had surnames based on their occupations or looks. That even something as simple as a telephone or public transportation was not available to them as sleuthing tools. I see it differently. The limitations make it more of an interesting chase to me. What could he use better than his own wits? And the history itself serves not as a hindrance, but as a skeleton to hang my fiction on. Those of us who write historicals know that the readers for this genre are sticklers for accuracy. They want the authentic feel of the era. They want the history, the facts to be right, else why read it? And why write it? Surely if you don’t enjoy research this is the wrong genre for you to write.
I happen to come from a background not of historians but of parents who appreciated history and wanted to surround themselves with it, whether by filling their bookshelves with the best historical fiction of its day or with non fiction books of history. I was lucky to grow up in that environment, and even though my original career aspirations didn’t lean toward writing, I was allowed all of my creative outlets at home which led, eventually as an adult, to writing novels.
Part of the fun of writing about a distant time is getting to know it on an intimate level. You can only get so much from research in books. There comes a time when one must get one’s hands dirty to see what life was like.
For instance, my protagonist, Crispin Guest, is a disgraced knight turned detective on the mean streets of fourteenth century London. He’s a dark and brooding fellow and besides doing his personal penance by bringing bad guys to justice, he often finds his solace in the bottom of a wine goblet. Sometimes he partakes of beer and I wanted to know what that medieval beer tasted like. From what I read, it was a little rawer, a little more herby than what we are used to today, so I elicited the help of my home brewer husband. Since we started with the whole grain we had to allow the grain to sprout, making the house smell like we had started a mildew farm. Then we dried it, throwing it into a pillowcase and tossing it into ye olde dryer (because we didn’t have the drying houses in which to do that). The beer we came up with was less than tantalizing. But the experiment caused a snowballing of personal investigation. What was the food like? How did it feel to wear medieval clothing? How did it feel to use medieval weapons?
I am fascinated by medieval weaponry. Consequently, I have become the proud owner of a broadsword and a few daggers, as well as a helm, battleaxe, and a flail (one of those nasty war weapons with a spiked ball on a chain attached to a stick. Sweet!)
As soon as I was in possession of the sword I naturally wanted to try it out. It was October and there were plenty of pumpkins around. I set up a few on posts in my backyard.
Now a broadsword is one of those weapons that speaks to me of the Middle Ages. This was the weapon that played a role in deciding national borders. Shaped like a cross, it was the weapon of choice to impose Christianity into regions of the Middle East. It was the ultimate if not Freudian of masculine symbols.
A broadsword is sharpened on both edges of its blade (unlike a knife that has one sharpened side). It is used one-handed, for the most part, the other hand being occupied with a long dagger called a main-gauche or a small shield known as a buckler. When you swung your blade you made the swash while you knocked your opponent with the buckler, hence swash-buckling. A broadsword is not elegant like a rapier or quick like a foil. It isn’t used in the same way. It is primarily a chopping weapon. It’s a sort of whack, whack, rest. Whack, whack, rest. Not what you see in the movies. It is 44 inches long and weighs about three pounds. Very handy as weapons go.
And so, when I came to attack my pumpkins, I swung at them. Even though the sword is not sharpened, an easy swing handily scalped them but good.
But a pumpkin, for all its head-like appearance, is not a head, so I needed bone to get the true feel of warfare. And then it occurred to me that I would also like to try out my daggers to see how it would feel to stab someone. Strangely, I could get no volunteers for this.
So I went to Costco.
Now it’s not easy picking out your victim, although it’s a little easier when you look for him in the meat department. I got myself the biggest slab of beef I could find.
When I brought it home, my victim’s body was already prone, lying there innocently on the butcher block. How to attack it properly? There was no help for it. I needed the fellow to be upright. I glanced toward my backyard window and spied my son’s wooden swing set.
First, I must explain that my son wasn’t home. No one was home but me and my meat victim. I only hoped that the neighbors weren’t peering out of their windows into my yard when I decided to get all CSI out there. Although, if they had witnessed the pumpkin beheading, they were already used to closing their shutters and waiting for it all to be over.
First thing I did was nail it up there and attack it with the dagger. My daggers are sharp and the blades went in cleanly. Of course, Sir Loin of Beef was not struggling, but that was okay. I could extrapolate the rest. Next I wanted to feel the blade against the bone. I lunged. Very hard. Lots of spine chilling scraping there. Yes, very tough if you had a small blade like this and managed to catch a rib.
After stabbing it a few more times at a few more angles, it was time for the sword!
I cocked back the sword one-handed and gave it a good whack. Right through the bone on the first go and into the wooden post. Wow. That was fun. Another! Yup. This guy was dead. Really dead. Really most sincerely dead.
It was a good day.
But now I was left with this slab of hacked up meat, hanging limply from one little nail and swinging in the breeze. How was I going to get rid of the body?
Simple. We ate him.
Yes, some think that writing is about sitting alone in one’s home office hour after hour, and for the most part I would have to agree. But there are moments…great moments…
Jeri Westerson takes time out of her busy day of swinging a sword to write her critically acclaimed Medieval Noir series with protagonist Crispin Guest. Her newest, TROUBLED BONES, was released October 11. You can read excerpts and discussion guides on her website at www.JeriWesterson.com or read what Crispin has to say on his own blog at www.CrispinGuest.com.