02 January, 2006

Miss Snark reviews my synopsis

In an earlier post I mentioned Miss Snark's Synopsis Crapometer. She's now posted my synopsis. It hasn't been savaged, and what's more a few people have commented on it. I thought I'd respond to their comments here rather than cluttering up Miss Snark's blog. If you clicked through from the comment I left there, welcome.

David said: "By the seventh century, Lindsey was under the control of Mercia or Northumbria . . . whichever happened to be stronger..... I've reread my source. It could be that the kingdom of Lindsey got subjugated a little later than th sixth century as I previously thought. You could be completely right."

David, I'm flattered that you took the trouble to reread your source. The date of the story is early 7th century (AD 605, to be precise), and my reading of Bede* is that at this time Northumbria was still divided into Bernicia and Deira, and Mercia was still fragmented into Mercia and Middle Anglia and possibly some of the other odds and ends in the Tribal Hidage. It seems to me likely that Lindsey, which is about the same size as Deira, would have been an independent unit at the same time, although (as usual for this period) there is no definitive evidence either way. Aethelbert of Kent was 'Bretwalda' over the kingdoms south of the Humber (which would certainly have included Lindsey) when St Augustine died around AD 604-609 (Bede, Book II, Ch 3). It's not clear what, if any, real political power the 'Bretwalda' exercised over the other kingdoms, but if Lindsey had an overlord in AD 605 I think it would most likely have been Aethelbert of Kent.
This whole issue of consolidation/unity versus independence is fascinating, and one I'll explore in later books. Is it better to be a tiny independent kingdom with limited military muscle (and therefore vulnerable to being pushed around by a stronger neighbour), or is it better to be part of a larger grouping (but with some loss of sovereignty)? Hard call; and it looks sharply different from different points of view. (I daresay Sauron could argue he was trying to unify Middle Earth). Arguably the current debate over a 'federal European superstate' is a reflection of the same dilemma.

David said: "as far as I know, their women weren't allowed to be strong people. Saxon gender beliefs aren't really my 'thing.'"
Gabriele said: "To me, she comes across as strong, a woman able to run a farm, fight off attackers, and face reality in her relationship"
Anonymous said: "the women in the book are cool and kick ass - in a way that fits with the period."

Well spotted, Gabriele! Thank you.
Anonymous (I know who you are of course, but I won't blow your cover) had an unfair advantage in that she has read the book right through, and her comment is a very fair summary of what I am trying to achieve.
There's clear evidence that women had fairly high status in the Anglo-Saxon period, certainly much higher than they had after the Norman Conquest. See Kathleen Herbert's excellent book 'Peace Weavers and Shield Maidens', from Anglo-Saxon Books. Women could and did exercise considerable influence, as is clear from Bede's description of King Raedwald's wife advising (one could almost say dictating) her husband's religious and foreign policy (Bede, Book II, Ch. 12, Ch. 15) and Bede's comment on Abbess Hild, "kings and princes used to come and ask her advice in their difficulties and take it" (Bede, Book IV, Ch. 23). But is also clear that women had influence, not overt power. I know of no documented example of a queen ruling in her own right, and certainly no Xena Warrior Princess types.

Rick said "I suspect that a challenge for readers (and thus commercially) will be in the role of women. I suspect that Anonymous is right that they are kick ass cool. The problem is that the Anglo-Saxons lived before our idea of "romance" entered the culture."
Gabriele said "Lol, I am a woman but I like to read historical fiction without romance subplots, female MCs and all that"

I'm with Gabriele on this one. There are lots of people already writing romances, historical or otherwise, and doing it very well. I'll leave it to them. If it's a commercial problem, so be it.

Rick said: "this feels like a guy book. Don't take this wrong, but sort of Conan with a brain"

Great comment, Rick. You can call me Conan with a brain all you like, as long as the emphasis is on 'brain' and not on 'Conan'. It's not a guy book in the sense of a paperback with a picture of an explosion on the cover, what my dad would call "a good blood-and-thunder storybook", but neither is it a girl book in the sense of a boy-meets-girl-tragic-misunderstandings-occur-but-are-resolved-and-all-ends-happily romance.

Rick said: "Intelligence, yes, but intellect has a connotation of book learning"

My edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary defines 'intellect' as 'faculty of knowing and reasoning; understanding'. Yes, that's exactly what I meant. I don't think it necessarily implies book learning. Have we got a subtle difference between British and US English here, perhaps?

*Bede: 'Ecclesiastical History of the English People', written by the Venerable Bede at the monastery of Jarrow in Northumbria in AD 731. This is the primary source for the period. I work from the 1990 Penguin Classics translation. Bede is known as the 'father of English history' and generally regarded as reliable by most modern scholars. If you want to know more about him and his work, you can listen to an excellent discussion of Bede on BBC Radio 4's In Our Time programme.


Rick said...

Carla --

The A-S period is not my turf, but you pretty much say what I'd already gathered, that our knowledge of political specifics c. 605 is hazy enough that you have considerable maneuvering room.

If you haven't already, you might include an author's afterword sketching what we know or can infer, and what you interpolated.

"Intellect" - I don't know whether this is a Brit/US distinction, or just something I picked up myself along the way. Nothing to bother about in any case.

On A-S women, I'm reminded of something CS Lewis wrote in his famous (if now outdated) essay on courtly love and the "romance" theme in Western lit, that while the A-S attitude was wholly alien to the romance tradition, it led "ultimately [to] the franchise."

I'd demur slightly, though, on the post-Conquest era. Later English history was scarcely devoid of influential women. Even Matilda, "Lady of the English," might have made good her claim if she hadn't been such a bad politician!

"Conan with a brain" - definitely my intended emphasis was on the brain part, not the mighty thews, though Wolfric can presumably hold his own in a fight. A better example really is LOTR (Tolkien after all having been an A-S scholar). Women have only secondary roles, though sometimes important ones; they are portrayed as competent and sometimes powerful, but a "romance" element is effectively nonexistent. Notice that Peter Jackson fixed this in the movies!

It shouldn't really be an issue - I'm sure that you and Gabriele are not alone - but Miss Snark's one queep came from the collision of the story with her preconceptions about the roles of women in hist-fic.

I'm in a curiously inverse situation. My (agented, not yet bought) novel, Catherine of Lyonesse, is being marketed as fantasy, but has much in common with historical fiction. Conventional fantasy elements are minimal - no dragons or elves, only hints of magic. The world is modeled on 16th c. Britain and France, but it had to be an invented world because you cannot make up royalty in a familiar period.

My protagonist is a royal heiress; the book deals with her efforts to make good her claim - and in the sequel I'm writing, to stay on her throne. Essentially the book is political (with some adventure), but her love life is integrally involved. Look at the effect Elizabeth I's and Mary Queen of Scots' romantic involvements had on their respective reigns! I imagine that it will get typecast as a girl book, even though it is most about getting, holding, and using power.

Re-reading your synopsis, do I get a whiff of sequel? At the end, Wolfric is a voluntary exile with a new and higher ambition. To become Bretwalda?

-- Rick

Alex Bordessa said...

Carla - You sound suitably robust about this period, so stay that way! It's very much up for grabs regarding the interpretation of the history and archaeology. The major problem is getting past people's preconceived ideas of the era; I had exactly the same problem. To be honest it occurred to me that perhaps my writing wasn't good enough to sweep away their doubts, but I'm not sure that's the case with either thee or me. Sometimes people are just looking to criticise *something* and because they aren't familiar with that period they plump for doing that.

Have you read Fay Sampson's 'The Flight of the Sparrow'? About Edwin of Deira, it's the book that inspired me to start writing again It knocked me wee socks off. It's published by Hale (known for Regencys and westerns!), but deserved a much more mainstream publisher.

Anyway, I'm off to read your synopsis on Miss Snark ... You are sooo brave!

Amanda said...

I thought your comments on the position of women in your time period were really interesting. I think it's worth remembering that a lack of documentary evidence on the strength of women (a la Xena!) doesn't mean that women didn't hold power in their own right, just that no documents exist to prove it. Male rulers in subsequent eras could have destroyed such documents - there's a lot of truth in the idea that history belongs to the victor. So if you want strong women, have them.

Rick said...

Amanda --

I read somewhere that Henry VII had Christine de Pisan's book on the art of war translated for his commanders, but for obvious reasons left off the author's name. (Though Pisan mostly just cribbed Vegetius anyway, as every other military writer of her era did.)

Powerful women also tended to appear in slightly different roles. For every regnant queen in her own right, there were probably two or three widowed queens kicking butt on their underage sons' behalf, or grass widows defending the kingdom while hubby was off on crusade.

These gals may not be literally erased from history, but they do tend to get dissed. Margaret of Anjou, the able wife of Henry VI, becomes the she-wolf. And while everyone knows about Mary Queen of Scots, how much attention is paid to her mom, Mary of Guise, who was far more successful as regent of Scotland.

-- Rick

Bernita said...

The A-S Chronicle for A.D 495 does mention Sexburga(Cenwall's wife?) having held the government one year after him.
And a confused reference to Ricola for 604 A.D.
Certainly women, at least noble women, had political value and influence, by the inference extracted: Eadbald taking to wife the relic of his father (the heathen!)
Edwin ( of the East-Angles?) promising his daughter Eanfleda to God ( in exchange for destroying his enemies). Penda ( of Mercia?) betrayed by his own queen.
The king's sisters Kyneburga and Kyneswitha were important enough to give their approval in 656 to documents.
Et sec.
No one's going to argue with you there.

Carla said...

Everybody: I will write something about all your comments on the role of women later.

Rick: Your not-fantasy novel sounds fascinating. I have one like that too and I'll post about that later too. It ties in with the whole issue over historical accuracy versus story - some people would say Conn Iggulden's Caesar series should have been published as a fantasy considering some of the liberties he took.

Rick: Yes, there is a sequel. There are so many interesting aspects of the period that I couldn't possibly explore them all in one book. I might post something about that later too.

Alex: Yes, I read Flight of the Sparrow and I'm going to review it here in due course.

Bernita: considering you said the period wasn't your area, you know your Anglo-Saxon Chronicle! It was Edwin of Northumbria (aka Edwin of Deira) whose daughter Eanflaed was baptised as a sort of down-payment for victory in battle (she became a nun much later, I think, as a widow). Oswy of Northumbria dedicated his baby daughter Aelflaed to God as a nun in return for victory over Penda of Mercia.

Sarah Cuthbertson said...

Great synopsis. It tells me that this is a novel I'd want to buy.

The multi-faceted loyalty theme is a powerful one and the story illustrates it vividly. The only thing that seems to be missing from the synopsis is a real sense of the main characters as 3D people. Perhaps the synopsis isn't the right place for it. Maybe character comes out in the sample chapter(s) or any accompanying character sketches. I'm a sucker for a flawed hero and would love it, for example, if Wulfric had an Achilles heel-type vulnerability or a black spot in his past that he needs to deal with alongside the larger conflict. Did something bad happen between him and Raedwulf before the story starts, perhaps?

I wouldn't be surprised if an agent wanted you to bring Morwenna back onto centre stage before the end of the novel, and not just to fix her in the reader's mind for the sequel. Would that ruin the story?

Rick said...

Carla --

The frontier between hist-fic and fantasy is interesting, with some border disputes and endemic cross-raiding.

Part of my "research" - what I'm doing right now, in fact - is writing a faux history chapter covering the first year or so of Catherine's reign. Partly it serves a synopsis-like function of testing the plot for robustness. We learn real history mainly from similar books, so if it reads convincingly as historical narrative it will probably hold together. If aliens show up, it would stick out like a sore thumb.

The most amazing thing, though, is learning stuff - "Aha, so that is why the Duke of Norrey did such-and-such in the summer of 1512!" Thinking of events as history opens doors of perception, so to speak.

Re: Sequel ... Aha! I knew Wolfric wasn't just riding off into the sunset: He's riding off into our next exciting episode.

-- Rick

Rick said...

Oops, I mean Wulfric

-- Rick (no wolf)

Alex Bordessa said...

Regarding strong women - there is not only documentary evidence. There is also archaeological evidence. For example, some early 'Anglo-Saxon' (whatever that might mean exactly) women have been found buried with shields and/or spears. This may not mean they were actually using them, but hints that some sort of male status was being conferred upon them. Before DNA testing, it was often assumed that any burial with weapons was male, but some older excavated sites need their skeletons re-investigated, as the assumption is patently faulty!

Gabriele C. said...

Carla, thanks for taking the time to make such detailed comments about our remarks on Miss Snark's site. The more I read about your book, the more I want to read it.

Rick, I like the Fantasy take on history as well. Guy Gavriel Kay is one of my favourite writers, and he does it to great effect.

Strong women in history - well, I think that wants a blog entry of its own. Haven't written a nice, long, writing related one on my blog for some time anyway. ;-)

Rick said...

Gabriele, I saw you mentioned Guy Gavriel Kay on your blog - discovering his books was a huge relief to me! The Lions of al-Rassan, at least, is in some ways even closer to real history than mine, modeled on the context of the Cid. (I haven't yet read the Sarantium books or his new one.) My background is clearly modeled on Renaissance Britain and France, but with few direct parallels of people or events.

My theory of fantasy is that there are two (well, at least two) distinct things that readers like. One is the familiar fantasy elements - magic, dragons, and so on. Another is settings evocative of the historical past, but freed of the specific constraints of actual history, or even the particular what-ifs of alternate history (e.g., "what if the Armada won?").

Fantasy has branched out quite a bit in the first direction, with "urban fantasy" and the like, but only Kay (that I know of) has really explored evocative worlds while leaving the magic rings at home.

-- Rick

Carla said...

Rick - Walks, not rides, but yes there is another episode. I'm a great fan of author's afterwords. I think it's a courtesy to the reader to say what is documented history, what was made up to fill gaps, and what (if anything) was changed and why. Please do keep me posted on 'Catherine of Lyonesse' as it sounds like something I would like to read.

Sarah - is it possible to tell a story about someone without any flaws? I think I heard somewhere that Superman was originally conceived as a perfect hero, and then his creators realised they couldn't do anything if he had no weaknesses and had to invent kryptonite. Giving a sense of character in a few words is awkward, but Miss Snark did say it was acceptable to 'tell not show' in a synopsis, so that may be a way forward.

Carla said...

Gabriele and Rick - you make me want to read some Guy Gavriel Kay. I'd never heard of him before. Which of his books should I start with?

Gabriele C. said...

Well, for an Anglo Saxon Britain fan it should be The Last Light of the Sun. :-) It is a world that somewhat resembles Saxon Britain (the Anglcyn), Wales (the Cyngael), and Scandinavia (the Erlings).

Else, The Lions of Al-Rassan (Fantasy version of Mauretanian Spain and the Reconquista) is a great read, and I'm just starting A Song for Arbonne (Mediaeval Southern France-ish with troubadours) which looks good, too.

Carla said...

Thanks, Gabriele, that's brilliant! I'll add those to my reading list.