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History Undusted: Atlantic Iron Age Souterrains

DCF 1.0A Souterrain is a type of underground construction mainly associated with the Atlantic Iron Age.  Built near settlements, they were used as storage for food or as a hiding place from raiders.  After being dug out, they were lined with flat stones and staircases down into their depths.  Of those excavated throughout the UK and Ireland, artefacts are rare, indicating that they were merely in use temporarily.  Some are very small, while others resemble passageways; my guess is that it would depend on the size required by the settlement, and how much time they had to prepare it.

Day 8, 1.146 - Souterrain, Loch Eriboll, 21 July 2012I came across a souterrain along Loch Eriboll in 2012, as I was in the area doing research for my novel, The Cardinal.  In these photos, you can see that, if you were walking out there at night or dusk, they could be very treacherous.  My husband crawled down inside to take a picture back out; it was roomy enough for him to stand once inside (in this particular souterrain even the ceiling was lined with large stone slabs), though the narrow stone stairs and proportions, in general, indicated a much shorter population than modern humans.  You can see from the photo of myself how overgrown the bracken and heather is; the entrance was nearly completely hidden; we were looking for it based on a geological map’s markings, but if we hadn’t known it was there, it would have gone completely unnoticed.

I needed a tunnel entrance in the exact location of the souterrain for the novel, so it enriched the story by fitting reality and the fantasy together perfectly!

Day 8, 1.149 - Souterrain, Loch Eriboll, 21 July 2012

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Wordless Wednesday no. 26: Auto-Selfie

Smoking Car with Selfie Stick

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June 21, 2017 · 10:00 AM

History Undusted: Skara Brae, Orkney

Skara BraeSkara Brae is probably the single most famous Neolithic settlement uncovered in the world.  It gives us the most complete picture of everyday life in that period of time, and has quite a few surprises:  Indoor running water?  Dressers and beds?  Yep.  They had storage rooms, and even toys for the kids.  There are some objects that they can’t figure out, but that just makes it all the more tantalizing.

Originally much farther from the shoreline, over the centuries erosion has eaten away at the land; Skara Brae will itself eventually succumb to the pounding Atlantic waves.

I was there in 1989 for the first time, and again in 2002; the first time I was there, I was with a group of friends, and we were given a private tour by a friend’s uncle who worked there.  It was an amazing way to see this prehistoric site, tourist-free and (back then) largely untainted by tourism.  In 2002 it was a different matter altogether:  A tourist shop had sprung up, and we had to time our viewing between bus-loads of day-tourists from “doon sooth” (down south = Scotland).  Also on that second visit, the Atlantic winds were so strong that we were literally leaning into the wind at a 45° angle; if it had had a sudden lull, we would have been flung into the sunken dwellings; it was an adventure.

Skara Brae stone objectsIf you get a chance to go, do so; take at least a fortnight on Mainland Orkney.  It’s known as the Archaeologist’s treasure trove, and for good reason – just about any stone you turn over has some kind of historical significance, and there are many sites to take in:  Maeshowe, Ness of Brodgar and the Ring of Brodgar, and chambered cairns to name a few, and even more modern sites such as Churchill Barrier, and sunken World War 2 vessels (some portions are visible in low tide).

The stretch of water between Scotland and Orkney, the Pentland Firth, is known as “The Sailor’s Nightmare”; there are several currents that flow and mix into this bottleneck, not only making for treacherous sailing, but it can also make even the hardiest sailor lose his lunch.  Word to the wise:  When heading out of Thurso with the ferry to the Mainland (the largest island in the Orkney group), a) don’t eat yet (it usually leaves around lunch time, and believe me, you won’t keep it long…), and b) as soon as you get on the ferry, head to the dining room and get a window-side table; this is because they will not only fill up fast, but once you’re out of the relatively calm / wind-sheltered bay into the open strait, you’ll be glad for a ring-side view from a wind-sheltered, spray-sheltered spot; keeping your eye on the horizon helps the brain deal with the swells, and keeps seasickness at bay…

Originally posted on History Undusted,

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Wordless Wednesday no. 25: At the Races

Run like you stole something

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June 14, 2017 · 10:00 AM

Pixar’s Rules of Storytelling

Recently I came across Pixar’s rule #19, quoted in James Scott Bell’s book, “How to Write Short Stories (and use them to further your writing career)”.  It’s an excellent book, and one of a few of his I’ve got in my Kindle collection.  But this rule reminded me of the whole list, full of good advice for storytellers whether their format is film or novel (from flash fiction to tome).  Most writing advice boils down to things like focus, self-discipline, detail work, and honing one’s craft to the best it can be – and that is an on-going process, a habit, an addiction.  It needs to be a passion.  Honing our craft means covering all the bases – grammar, syntax, plot, character, vocabulary, pacing, theme-building, and so, so, much more!  If you’ve got a weakness in your writing skills, the good news is that you can always improve it!  Make it a strength!  So be inspired, and keep writing!

Pixar's Writing Rules

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History Undusted: A Small Treatise on the Viking Age, began at Lindisfarne

Viking ship

In researching for my novel, “The Cardinal“, I did a lot of research into the Viking Age of Scotland, Norway, and in modern-day Britain.  The following is a snippet of the notes and thoughts I percolated over while studying into this amazing time in world history.  Some of the speculations, such as the motivations behind the Lindisfarne attack, are my own, based on studies and extrapolation.

I think it’s impossible to do justice to any information about the Vikings; their existence, culture, language, mentality, and the effect of their actions have had repercussions that echo down through the ages.  They gave names to countless cities throughout the world, and even entire regions:  The Norse kingdom of Dublin (Old Norse for “Black Pool”) was a major centre of the Norse slave trade; Limerick, Wexford and Wicklow were other major ports of trade; Russia gets its name from them, and the list goes on and on. Had they not been so successful in the slave trade and conquest, entire regions of the earth would be populated differently, place names would be vastly different, and English would be a far poorer language than it is today.

“A.D. 793. This year came dreadful fore-warnings over the land of the Northumbrians, terrifying the people most woefully: these were immense sheets of light rushing through the air, and whirlwinds, and fiery dragons flying across the firmament. These tremendous tokens were soon followed by a great famine: and not long after, on the sixth day before the ides of January in the same year, the harrowing inroads of heathen men made lamentable havoc in the church of God in Holy-island, by rapine and slaughter.” (The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, pg. 37)

This reference from The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, one of the most famous history books available in English, is a reference to what would become known as the beginning of the Viking Age, the attack on the Holy Isle of Lindisfarne.  Firstly, I’d like to clarify a few points:  “Viking” is a term that first came into being, in its present spelling, in 1840; it entered English through the Old Norse term “vikingr” in 1807.  The Old Norse term meant “freebooter, pirate, sea-rover, or viking”, and the term “viking” meant “piracy, freebooting voyage.”  The armies of what we would call Vikings were referred to by their contemporaries as Danes, and those who settled were known by the area they settled in, or visa-versa.  Those who settled in the northeastern regions of Europe were called Rus by their Arabian and Constantinopolitan trading partners, perhaps related to the Indo-European root for “red”, referring to their hair colour, or – more likely – related to the Old Norse word of Roþrslandi, “the land of rowing,” in turn related to Old Norse roðr “steering oar,” from which we get such words as “rudder” and “row”.

Oh, and not a single Norse battle helmet with horns has ever been found.

I’d like to focus on a key point of the Lindisfarne episode, if one could refer so glibly to the slaughter of innocent monks and the beginning of the reign of terror that held the civilized world in constant fear for over two centuries:  Yes, the Vikings were violent; their religion of violent gods and bloody sacrifices and rituals encouraged and cultivated it to a fine art.  Yes, the Vikings were tradesmen, but they were also skilled pirates and raiders, that skill honed along their own home coasts for generations prior to their debut on the rest of the unsuspecting world.  Yes, it was known that monasteries held items sacred to the Christian faith, that just happened to be exquisitely wrought works of art made of gold and jewels.

Gold was one enticement; but their primary trading good was human flesh; slaves.  It was by far the most lucrative item, and readily had along any coast they chose; if too many died in the voyage they could always just get more before they docked at Constantinople, Dublin, or any other major trading port.  So why did they slaughter the monks so mercilessly at Lindisfarne, when they would have gained more by taking them captive and either selling them as slaves or selling them for ransom?  The answer might actually be found in Rome.

Charlemagne (ruled 768-814 AD) took up his father’s reigns and papal policies in 768 AD. From about 772 AD onwards, his primary occupation became the conversion to Christianity of the pagan Saxons along his northeastern frontier.  It is very important to make a distinction between the modern expressions of the Christian faith and the institution of power mongers of past centuries; Christianity then had extremely little to do with the teachings of Christ and far more to do with political and military power, coercion, and acquisition of wealth through those powers; it was a political means to their own ends with the blessing of the most powerful politician in the history of the civilized world, the Pope.  Without his blessing and benediction, a king had not only very little power, but was exposed to attack from anyone who had “holy permission” to exterminate heathens; joining the ranks of the Christian church took on the all-important definition of survival, and protection from the others in those ranks being free to attack you at their leisure.

In the year 772 AD, Charlemagne’s forces clashed with the Saxons and destroyed Irmensul, the Saxon’s most holy shrine and likely their version of the Yggdrasil, the Tree of the World, of Scandinavian mythology.  In the Royal Frankish Annals of 775 AD, it was recorded that the king (Charlemagne) was so determined in his quest that he decided to persist until they were either defeated and forced to accept the papal authority (in the guise of “Christian faith”), or be entirely exterminated [Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories, trans. Bernhard Walter Scholz with Barbara Rogers (Michigan 1972: 51)].  Charlemagne himself conducted a few mass “baptisms” to underscore the close identification of his military power with the Christian church.

“In 782 the Saxons rebelled again and defeated the Franks in the Süntel hills. Charlemagne’s response was the infamous massacre of Verden on the banks of the river Aller, just south of the neck of the Jutland peninsula. As many as 4,500 unarmed Saxon captives were forcibly baptised into the Church and then executed.  Even this failed to end Saxon resistance and had to be followed up by a programme of transportations in 794 in which about 7,000 of them were forcibly resettled. Two further campaigns of forcible resettlement followed, in 797 and in 798….  Heathens were defined as less than fully human so that, under contemporary Frankish canon law, no penance was payable for the killing of one” [Ferguson, Robert (2009-11-05). The Hammer and the Cross: A New History of the Vikings (Kindle Locations 1048-1051). Penguin UK. Kindle Edition.]

The defining of a heathen as less than human was actually not a unique idea;  Scandinavians were familiar with that notion from their own cultures, which defined slaves as less than human and therefore tradable goods; and if a freeman announced his intention of killing someone (anyone) it was not considered murder as the victim was given “fair” warning.

The more I learn about Charlemagne’s brutal policies toward what he considered sub-human pagans, the more I understand the reaction of retaliation toward the symbols of that so-called Christian faith, the monasteries and its inhabitants.  They slaughtered, trampled, polluted, dug up altars, stole treasures, killed some, enslaved some, drove out others naked while heaping insults on them, and others they drowned in the sea.  The latter was perhaps a tit-for-tat for those at Verden who were forcibly baptised and then killed.

Lindisfarne was merely the first major attack in Britain that was highly publicized (as chroniclers of history were usually monks, and those such as Alcuin knew the inhabitants of Lindisfarne personally), in what would become a 250-year reign of terror, violence, slavery, raping, pillaging, plundering and theft either by force or by Danegeld.  But as in all good histories, it’s important to remember that hurt people hurt people; the perpetrator was at one time a victim.  One might say that what goes around comes around.  It’s no excuse or downplay of what happened there, which literally changed the course of the civilised world, but it perhaps gives a wider perspective on the Vikings of the times rather than just the vicious raiders portrayed in so many documentaries.  And it is important to remember that Vikings did not equal Norsemen; the majority of Scandinavians were farmers and fishermen, living as peacefully as their times would allow, and even themselves victims to the occasional Viking raid.

Originally posted on History Undusted on 14 July 2013
Image Credit: Origin Unknown, Pinterest

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Basque Musings

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I just returned from a long weekend away with my husband in Bilbao, Spain.  I say that with trepidation, as, according to many Basque people, it is not Spain, but Basque Country.  There are some who are content to remain part of Spain and France, and others who want independence, so when in Basque Country, say it the Basque way.

As a lover of history, linguistics and just about everything else except strenuous exercise, I can say that it was a great weekend (even though a lot of exercise snuck in)!  Great weather, great food, great architecture, confusing languages, and interesting sites all round.  Here are some highlights:

Guggenheim Museum:  The building itself is well worth the visit!  The architect, Frank Gehry, literally designed the building on one of his free-form doodles. With only one straight wall that I could see, I can imagine that he was doodling when the phone rang and made his hand jerk, causing the straight line…  it’s an engineering feat, to say the least.  Just outside the Guggenheim are several sculptures, notably a giant dog made of flowering plants; it was intended to be a temporary display, but the people of Bilbao fell in love with it, and it’s now a permanent landmark.  There’s also one for us odd arachnophiles out there, a giant spider.  Two sculptures look like they’d float away, even though they weigh tons:  “Tulips”, and a tower of balls.

The weather was perfect, so we took a “Bilboat” tour down the waterway; it gave us the chance to see areas of the city which are usually far from the tourist route; areas that are in the throes of rejuvenation and restoration.

Pintxos:  You can’t go to Basque Country and eat in a usual restaurant!  You need to go (what my husband and I dubbed) “Pintxopping” – like pub crawling but for a Pintxos (“Pinchos”) dinner.  They are similar to Spanish tapas but far more elaborate; 5-6 will make a meal.  12 Euro will get you 6 Pintxos and a pint of beer.  Any Pintxos bar worth their salt will spread out a wide variety of the treats along the length of their bar, and diners choose a selection of hot and cold delicacies.  Bars pride themselves on signature creations; one bar we ate at had a mound of crab meat baked under a layer of squid-ink-tinted cheese, in the shape of a regional mountain.  Most are served atop toasted slices of Baguettes, though there are also many on skewers, or served as spring rolls.  If you’re now hungry, sorry about that – but you can find recipes all over Pinterest.

Language:  The Basque language (Euskara) is a language isolate – in other words, it is unrelated to any other known language. Within language families, one could interpret this or that word based on a known relative language, e.g. between English street and German strasse.  But looking at a road sign in Bilbao, you would have NO clue as to which word is the street name, and which is the word for street, road or path.  Unless you know Basque, you would have no chance of interpreting anything – even if the context is known. An example sentence from the article on Wikipedia illustrates that point:  “Martinek egunkariak erosten dizkit” means “Martin buys the newspapers for me”.  It is the last remaining descendant of one of the pre-Indo-European languages of Western Europe,  with every other language that might have existed in relation to it having gone extinct, so there’s no way to decipher it based on a comparative method, linguistically.  It may have been related to the Aquitanian language, which was spoken in the region before the Roman Republic’s conquest in the Pyrenees region, but the exact origins are unknown.  It’s a fascinating study, if you’re interested!

One of the images above was taken on my flight home; the Alps were in fine form, and the weather great for flying; Matterhorn can be seen in the centre. I hope you enjoyed my mini-tour, and I would recommend that you get yourself a pintxo or two to tide you over until your next meal…

 

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Google is a Verb

Recently I was chatting with a few friends, and the topic of finding information came up; I was surprised that it hadn’t even occurred to them that they could find such information online.  Time and again, I meet such people.  It is a modern phenomenon that we have the world’s knowledge at our fingertips; Google has become so ubiquitous with searches that it’s made it into dictionaries as a verb, and yet it seems that some people have still not realised its potential.

Granted, there is a lot of static out there:  Misinformation (whether intentional or unintentional), nonsense, and useless clutter (someone’s grandkid’s cousin’s uncle’s birthday party, or videos that need massive editing before they’re much use but they’re online nonetheless).  But if you know how to search, there’s a world of information out there to be had; you need to use discernment, and – especially if using the information as a basis for an article, or in writing a novel – you need to get cross-references and confirmation.  But I’ve found that the people I’ve talked to on this topic can’t seem to get past the static and therefore seem to have difficulty in viewing cyberspace as a serious information source.

The downside of so much ready knowledge with easy access is that people no longer need to memorise or learn information themselves – they can just grab their phone and look it up.  The upside of it is that, if people make proper use of it, they can learn so much more than previous generations ever even had access to.  The photo below, gone viral, is of a school class sitting in front of Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch”; while it appears that they are bored and inattentive to what is around them, they’re actually using the museum’s app to learn more about the photo and the painter as part of a school assignment.  Notice that they’re interacting with each other, and even helping each other.  Hopefully part of the assignment was also to study the painting with their eyes.

Teens using museum app

I do a LOT of research online; for some of my books, I’ve done odd searches which I’m certain mess with the algorithms of Google & co.  I’ve searched for the average size of a human corpse and the distinctions between a coffin, casket and cist (I started getting ads for funeral services after that); how to throw a kris dagger vs. a regular dagger; tide tables; sunrises, sunsets and moon phases in the 9th, 18th and 21st centuries; native flowers to Britain in the Georgian period; medicine at sea; the effects of various soil compositions on a corpse and artefacts, postmortem forensics, and dozens of other bizarre topics.  In my free time, I do a wide variety of crafts and cooking, and so my Pinterest pins multiply like rabbits in the dark!  Just click on my gravatar link to have a peek through my cupboards there.

If you put your mind to learning how to do anything, you can find instructions for it somewhere online.  A few weeks ago, I wanted to reupholster our office chairs (they are the kind that has a hard plastic frame at the back and underside of the seat).  I found a Youtube video that showed how to take them apart, and within an hour I had the first chair dismantled, reupholstered and reconstructed.  As Amelia Earhart said, “The most difficult thing is the decision to act; the rest is mere tenacity.”  I find that, in talking with friends, they often don’t know how to begin searching, and I think that’s the key:  They don’t try because they don’t know how to start, and so they can’t learn how to do it – learning by trial and error.  Failure is merely success in progress, but the point is that progress requires action… movement.

For writers, cyberspace is worth its weight in gold; no library could hold the amount of information available to us at our fingertips; no university could teach the wide range of topics available online; no video library could contain the staggering amount of documentaries, DIY instruction videos, and step-by-step how-tos.

What was the most recent thing you searched for online?  Was your search successful?  How much time did it take you to find what you were looking for?  Please describe it briefly in a comment below!

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POV

POV is shorthand in the film industry for “point of view” – in that context, it has to do with not only the narrative context but also the camera angles and editing process.  Changing the POV can affect the way the audience – or readers – perceive a character, an event, or the overall atmosphere of a scene.

Mark Twain - History's Ink is Fluid PrejudiceRecently I was watching a history documentary series from BBC called, “British History’s Biggest Fibs”, with Lucy Worsley.  The basic point of the series is that history is subjective; whoever wins gets to name the battles, and shape future generations’ perceptions about events; the victor gets to smooth over their own weak points and play up their heroism for posterity.  PR and spinning a good yarn helped to shape how reigning kings were perceived and toppled, or usurpers could style themselves as “successors”.

When writing a novel, the POV can drastically change a scene either from the inside, or the outside, or both; by that I mean that either the scene itself changes “camera angles” to tell the story from a slightly different perspective, or that something within the scene shifts slightly, affecting the reader’s perceptions of characters or events in the scene.  For example:  I was reading through a particular scene in my current manuscript that I knew I wasn’t happy with, but couldn’t put my finger on exactly what it was that bothered me aside from the outcome.  The scene involved an unjust flogging aboard a Royal Navy ship.  The officer on duty was forced by the captain to either flog the innocent man or be punished worse in his stead.  The original scene played out with the officer carrying out the punishment unwillingly but obediently.  The scene’s purpose is to show the gradually decaying grip on reality in a captain going insane; I wanted a stronger contrast, and so I tweaked the dialogue, which changed the outcome:  The officer refuses to punish the innocent man and takes the punishment on himself.  This outcome builds far more tension among the crew, gives grounds for retribution against the true instigator (a snivelling King John’s man of a junior officer), and contrasts the honourable dealings of the officer on duty against the captain’s failing sense of right and wrong.  By shifting the scene slightly, I take the reader and myself down a much steeper path.

POV - Screenshot Marvel's Avenger'sIn this illustration from Marvel’s Avengers film series, the camera angle chosen gives much more of an adrenaline rush than, say, if you were passively watching from off to the side; the fact that the arrow’s flying straight at you gives the scene that extra “kick”.

If you find yourself staring at one of your scenes – or even an entire premise of your story – that you’re not satisfied with, trying shifting the POV (sometimes it helps me to refer to it as the “camera angle”).  Put your inner eye’s camera in a different position in the scene, and see if that unlocks the key to improving that scene, the story arc or a character’s arc.  Keep writing!

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History Undusted: The History of the Ampersand & Other Ligatures

Emoticons 2.1The ampersand (&) may seem like a modern invention for lazy spellers, or a typesetter’s solution to limited space, or an English teacher’s pet peeve on exams; but it can actually be traced back to the 1st century Romans.  In English, “&” is pronounced “and” rather than its original Latin word “et” (meaning “and”).  Hannah Glasse’s writings show us that “etc.” was, in her time, written as “&c.” which may look strange to our modern sensibilities, but makes perfect sense when you know the origin of the ampersand.

There are many examples of ligature (characters consisting of two or more symbols combined into one) in use today; everyday symbols we use likely have quite a history.  Have you ever wondered about @, #, ©, ¶, or % ?  Or even “?” ?  And no, I’m not cussing.

Many currency symbols are a combination, abbreviation or contraction of words or letters:  The British pound symbol £ derives from the Roman word “Librae;” Libra was the basic Roman unit for weight, derived from the Latin word for “scales,” or “balance.”  “L” was the abbreviation (see, we aren’t the first generation of lazy spellers; but then again, you would be too, if you had to chisel it into stone, or cure hides for scrolls).  The Pound Sterling has quite a pedigree and is worth a read over at Wikipedia.

19-manasses-chronicle

 

Credit:  Wikipedia

 

Believe it or not, the “at” symbol, @, was first used in a religious text:  The Bulgarian translation of the Greek Manasses Chronicle (c. 1345) used it as an abbreviation for “Amen”.  There are several theories as to why it was used in this way; perhaps it was in an effort to save space and ink and hard-won writing surfaces.  In English, the symbol was originally an accounting and invoice abbreviation for “at a rate of”. In fact, it has long been used in financial or commercial contexts in several languages.  The use in email addresses began in 1971, and we all know how it’s used in web page addresses, and increasingly in use in text messages; it is probably the most common ligature of all.

Emoticons 1Our modern language has added Emoticons to the list of ligature symbols; many computers automatically convert certain combinations of symbols into a different one altogether; for example: :+-+) becomes ☺, <+3 becomes ♥; for more, take a gander at the image to the right.

Our language is full of history; those little symbols, punctuation marks that we take for granted, that necessary “@” for connecting to the world… what would we do without them?  And a hundred years from now, teenagers will be surprised how old ☺ is; they might even wonder what a physical computer keyboard with individual keys looked like.

 Originally posted 2 July 2013 on History Undusted

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