Small Regrets



Bridge_of_Sighs,_CambridgeBack in the day, when it came to my Erasmus year, I really meant to chose – and could have chosen – Cambridge.

Then I let my supervisor talk me into choosing Cardiff instead.

And mind, I was happy in Cardiff, and the scholarship there covered a full academic year instead of the six months I would have had in Cambridge, and there were all sorts academical and technical reasons why Cardiff was a good idea…

And yet, some twenty years later, I see things like this - and still regret it a little.

Oh well…

The other Birthday Boy


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Marlowe1A little Kit Marlowe, today.

First, Andrew Dickson’s nice article from The Guardian, tracing parallels with Shakespeare, and suggesting the What-if every Marlowe enthusiast worth the name must play at least once – and no, it has nothing to do with Kit and Will being one and the same.

Then a link to an overview of what the Cambridge Marlowe Dramatic Society is doing this year to celebrate.

Oh, and then there is Canterbury-based company Fourth Monkey: they are having a Marlowe 450 celebratory season – including a Massacre at Paris in the cathedral crypt, that can’t have been anything short of thrilling.

And let me add, as a finishing touch, novelist Elizabeth Bear’s thoughts on Kit in Cambridge and the Corpus Christi and Grafton portraits – posted on her blog as she did her field research for The Stratford Man.

Because, you know, it isn’t just about Shakespeare, after all.



Other People’s Books


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reading 2bOnce upon a time, years ago, I sat in a railway waiting room in Nantes, France,  reading a life of Henri de la Rochejaquelein as I waited for my train. I was so absorbed in my book, in fact, that it took me a while to notice someone crouched right before me, busy rummaging through one of those large duffel bags. And rummaging. And rummaging. And rummaging…

I did notice in the end, and stole a glance over the book’s rim – and there was this bespectacled boy about my age, pretending fascination with the contents of his bag, and desperately trying to get a peep at what sort of story held my attention so thoroughly.

So I gave him a smile, and tilted the book to show him the cover. Caught in the act, the boy jumped a mile, blushed furiously, grabbed his bag, and fled – but not before stealing a glance at the title, much to the amusement of two of three rows of fellow travelers.And yet, you know, the French boy had no need whatsoever to blush and flee: I am just the same. I cannot see a reader without itching to know. On a train, at the airport, at the vet’s… I just can’t help myself. I turn as nonchalantly as I can, I pretend to retie a boot, I risk dislocating my eyeballs, I blush to interesting hues when I get caught. I do it all the time.

Curiosity? Yes and no. It’s hard to resist the temptation to decipher someone based on what they read… And I know that one single book means little – and even less when traveling. One reads strange things, when traveling: gifts bought for someone else, or the one decent title found at the duty free, or the small  volume that fits in the hand-luggage, or a fellow traveler’s loan… Or not. It’s hard to tell, it can mean very little. And yet, we all do it. Or at least, I do – and like to draw conclusions.

Which is why, when I catch someone peeking at my books, I understand it very well, and always tilt the book to show them the cover. Sometimes I do inobtrusively, sometime I exchange a grin with the peeker. After all, we belong to the same tribe, don’t we -just like that boy in France, once upon a time. Those Who Peek At Other People’s Books.


Writing Out of the Box



WUYou know those writing sites, the ones that are so pretty to look at, filled with interestingly titled articles, offering advice on every step of the writing process… and then you start to read, and all you find is clichéd, repetitive blandness, about as helpful and interesting as cold porridge porridge – and usually pestering you to buy some pricey course or workshop or retreat?

Well, Writer Unboxed is not one of them.

In fact, WU is chock-full of good content: articles, interviews, reviews, practical advice on everything – from craft to marketing to research… It’s thoughtful, but never dull. Whimsical on occasion, but never silly. Always interesting, often thought-provoking.

Well worth checking out.

Moving Rivers


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This post about movin’ the river put me in mind of another, rather different story.

Keep AwayOne of my first editing jobs, back in the day, was for an amateur historian of the Retired Teacher variety.

A music teacher, too, so I don’t quite know why he turned to history of all things – but so he did. He started doing his own field research, and after a while, decided he had made earth-shattering discoveries, and must write a book. So he went to the one editor he knew of – me – and said that he wanted editing.

I told him one usually edits a book. A written book.

“I don’t care about usually. I want someone to follow me as I write. To bounce ideas with. To assist me all the way trought.”

Had I known any better, I would have run like the wind. But I didn’t, and not only accepted, but rather looked forward to it, as an interesting experience. It would be more like co-authoring than anything else – and I love history… what could go wrong?

Oh, so many things.

The fellow couldn’t write to save his soul, hadn’t the first notion about structuring  a paragraph – let alone a chapter or a whole book – and had a deep-seated aversion to archival research.

Why, why, oh why history, you’ll ask again. I was very soon wonderinRiverBookg myself – but the worst was yet to come. His theories at first seemed interesting enough, although there was no convincing him that he needed to support them somehow. Then one day, he sprang on me his Big Discovery: he claimed that, at some point in the 14th Century, the local lords had had the largest river in Italy moved. Secretly and more or less overnight. So very secretly that no one had realized in seven centuries…

I was flabbergasted. When I found my voice again, I asked how on earth he thought he was going to prove this. He said he needed no proof: that was how it had happened, and it couldn’t have been otherwise. And all the other historians who hadn’t seen it, were either incompetent fools or lying scoundrels.

All of which he meant to say in his book.

For months I tried to dissuade him, or at least to have him do some research. I preached historiography methodology, I told him (real) historians would butcher him with relish… to little avail, at first – and right when I thought I was perhaps seeding a few healthy doubts in his mind, he went to a local vanity publisher, who pronounced himself interested, and started to pre-sell copies to local municipalities.

“Did he read your chapters?” I asked, on receiving the news.

No, the publisher hadn’t bothered. He had seen the maps and, apparently, fallen in love with the project. My amateur historian was ecstatic. The publisher understood him (as I did not, was heavily implied), and he was a publisher, he’d know, wouldn’t he?

Of this I had my doubts, but there was no chance the poor man would ever heed my warnings by then. So I did my best to beat his style in some appearance of readability, and to tone down the worst of the attacks on established historians, and that was it.

In due time, the book was published, and I was invited at the launch. I went – with many misgivings…

My poor amateur historian was no better speaker than he was a writer. He muddled his arguments hopelessly to begin with – and then the (real) historians – three of them – closed in for the kill. They were unamused at being called names in print. As was to be expected, they shredded the poor fellow and his theories to ribbons, even the less loony ones. Most of all, they laughed at his portable river, and at his utter lack of documented proof…

The publisher, when called upon, candidly said that he had never read the book, and that authors should take all responsibility for what they wrote.

It was a nasty, gory, unpleasant affair – and do you know how it ended? The amateur historian stopped speaking to me for a few years. Because, well, nobody is ever grateful to Cassandra, I guess.

Then he decided he could forgive me, and to this day, whenever we meet, he starts on it again: how he was misunderstood, and how all other historians were either fools or liars, and how it must have been the way he says – because it couldn’t have been otherwise.

I try to avoid the man as much as I can, and when I can’t, I nod, murmur and then flee – but goodness. Moving rivers is an interesting activity!


An Elizabethan Rainbow

PrintIt was the names of the colours at first…

A handful of them I knew already – you don’t read Elizabethana for years without learning such picturesque names as Dead Spaniard grey, or Gooseturd green (incidentally, Robert Greene’s favourite colour, it would seem), but this list of the dyes available in 1574 Bristol is a wonder.

And then the whole of Elizabethan Trinkets is a mine of images and links: clothing, jewelry, architecture, objects, trinkets… I still have to really make friends with Tumblr blogs, but this one I like very much: interesting, pretty, and a delight to browse.

Killing Darlings


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English: French writer Alexandre Dumas, pere.It is said that, when the time came to kill off D’Artagnan, Dumas couldn’t bring himself to do the deed, and had his right-hand man Maquet do it.*

It is also said that Dumas killed off Porthos in person – and wept like a baby over it.

I think I rather understand him.

I have vivid memories of killing off my first hero ever, some twenty years ago. I sat up late at night to write, and it was my insomniac father who found me in tears, and wanted to know what was the matter…

“I’ve just killed Ned!” I sobbed – and if Dad was amused, he covered it well. I remember the exhilaration of having reached the last page, and the awfulness of having pushed under a cab this fellow I had imagined, and followed from childhood to early thirties, and put through all sorts of ups and downs, and grown to love… But he had to die in the end for the story to make the sense I wanted it to make. And so I cried my eyes out, but push him under the cab I did.

Poor Ned.

Back then I was very young and green at the game, but it would seem that, twenty years later, little has changed. Last weekend I reached the last-but-one, climatic scene of the opera libretto I’m writing for a composer. The scene involves a duel, in which my hero gets himself killed, poor lad. Now, don’t go and assume I kill of all my main characters… Oh well, I often do – but this time it isn’t exactly my choice. The libretto is a commission and a loose adaptation from someone else’s work, and I couldn’t change the ending, even if I wished.**

 Wait, wait, wait! Why don't we have another cup of tea, before we get drastic?

Wait, wait, wait! Why don’t we have another cup of tea, before we get drastic?

And yet, bearing all the above in mind, and having known from the beginning how it would end, I found myself dithering like mad, and tinkering past reason with the market scene that precedes the duel, and making myself multiple cups of tea – anything to postpone the fatal blow a little longer.

In the end, it took me twentyseven hours to kill the fellow – an inhuman length of time, I’ll agree – and I may not have teared up, but I very much wanted to. Like my much younger self. Like Dumas. Like, I’ll wager, a whole lot of writers.

Let no one tell you writing isn’t gruesome work. We do a lot of darling-killing, and it’s not always all that metaphorical. We make up people, we grow to know and love them – and then we kill them, and manage to be so very sorry about it.

Someone might call it not just gruesome, but weirdly so.


* Sounds terribly felonious, doesn’t it? Actually, Auguste Maquet was a history teacher and a very minor novelist, who earned a living as a sort of writing assistant to Dumas. It didn’t end well.

** Not that I do: it makes such perfect dramatic sense…




And a Bit with a Dog


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SilbAre you in London? Or reasonably near?

Then do go and see Shakespeare in Love – the stage version – at the Noël Coward Theatre.

I was not reasonably near – I flew from Italy to London and back again within forty-eight hours (while nursing a huge cold) for the sake of this play, and oh, was it ever worth it!

Much as I love the film, the stage version is better. Much better, in fact – with superb musicians onstage (one of them a fabulous countertenor), Declan Donnellan’s smart, lovely direction that makes the most of a set gorgeous in its simplicity, great performances from everyone, and above all an adapted script that centres everything firmly on theatre – and partly does so by expanding Kit Marlowe’s role. Oh, and of course there is the dog…

Can one ask for more?

Have a look at the trailer, read playwright Lee Hall’s thoughts on writing the adaptation, and then go see for yourself.

Historical What?


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StrangeBack when I read and loved Susanna Clarke‘s wonderful Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrel, I didn’t even know there was such a thing as historical fantasy.

It took me years, and the HNR, and keeping bad company to discover the genre, and develop a keen interest for its Elizabethan and Napoleonic sides. Let’s mention Wrede and Stevermere’s delighful Kate&Cecelia books, or Scott and Barnett’s equally wonderful The Armor of Light – just to mention a couple of favourites.

As I may have said before, I love the games one can play with history, and adding in magic – whether or not in the way it was understood and believed to work back then – sounds like a very good game…

Trouble is… well, it’s not really trouble, if you like – because every genre or subgenre is bound to have a broader sense and a few blurry corners… Still, I find I’m a bit disconcerted at the latitude of interpetation that is sometimes attached to historical fantasy. I’ve seen G.R.R. Martin’s Chronicles of Fire and Ice described as historical fantasy… I must say I have never finished the first volume of the Chronicles, but even so, I doubt they have any conceivable claim to historical fantasyhood, other than being plotted after the War of the Roses…

Is that enough? And if so, what’s to distinguish historical fantasy from all the fantasy set in some quasi-Medieval, quasi-Renaissance, quasi-Period-of-your-choice world?

A possible answer is: who cares? Who cares how a book is tagged – as long as it is a good book?

Yes, welll, there is that – but still. On the one hand, there is the matter of what I like and I don’t like, and while I’ll admit that having to hunt for “my” kind of historical fantasy through heaps of covers sporting ladies in tolkienenesque garb chatting up dragons before Neuschwanstein-like castles in pastels* is a very minor pain, seeing candy-coloured versions of the Middle Ages labeled as historical is… not. And I won’t even begin on historical perspective here**. What gives me pause in this is the publishing angle. What is the target? Is the reader of historical fantasy supposed to love indiscriminately Napoleonic dragons, Medieval fantasy, Elizabethan alchemy, and century-hopping vampires? Or is the genre just a provisional umbrella tag, waiting to splinter into a constellation of subgenres?

Would it bother me as much if I weren’t tempted to try my hand at it? Or if I weren’t this obsessed with history? WHo knows – but, things being what they are… Just wondering.


* Want to make a little experiment? Try searching for “historical fantasy” on Google Images or Pinterest…

** And I might, mind – I just won’t right now. I call this admirable restraint.


The Old Music of Words


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HildI confess, I haven’t read Nicola Griffith’s Hild. But I most certainly will, after finding  (in Farrar, Straus and Giroux’s blog Work In Progress) this excellent article about the research and thought process that went into crafting the novel’s language.

I greatly admire Ms. Griffith’s vivid depiction of her approach to… not so much recreating period language, as rendering its feel – and its social and psychological implications as well.

So much so that Hild’s time period may not be my favourite, but I just have to read a book written this way.

I’ll let you know.


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