A peaceful Christmas for all

The end came early on Christmas Eve morn, around 2:30. The doctor who called said my husband had passed quietly, peacefully. He’d waited, as I hoped he would, for his sister to arrive from out of state. We rushed to visit with him late Friday night, fearing if we waited until Saturday morning, he’d be gone. It was a good thing we didn’t wait.

Only last Sunday, he was lucid and, though fixated on coming home, feeling good enough to swing his legs over the side of the bed and sit up. Determination shined in his eyes, his pursed lips, as he tried to hold himself upright.

“I want to come home.”

I explained I couldn’t care for him home. Not yet. He was still connected to fluids, and antibiotics, and other drugs that now, only a week later, I can no longer name.

Some time between Sunday and Monday morning, his body collapsed. He was unconscious, was having trouble breathing. His organs were shutting down. Doctors said this was the end, gave him morphine to ease his struggle, and announced that death was imminent.

Evidently, science can’t quite quantify imminence, certainly not in a man who was determined not to die, who never sat still in his life, and whose heart was strong.

Released from all medications save the morphine drip that kept him comfortable, he existed in an unconscious twilight for five days, never awakening, until early on Saturday, Christmas Eve. He no longer looked like himself, gaunt to the point of skeletal, a bony nose so unlike his prominent one, sunken eyes even in sleep, cheek and temple bones glaringly evident, all subcutaneous padding gone.

I only feel relief. Part of it is for me, for the stress has been immense. But the vast majority of it is for him, for freedom from his struggles this past year, from his determination to go forward despite the pain, despite the indignities his body heaped upon him. I will forever remember his smile and laughter, and his industry surrounds me in a beautiful kitchen, perfectly detailed book cases, well laid tiles, but this year has given me other snapshots burned into my memory, ones I’ll never forget–of a starving man staring at dinner he wanted so badly but couldn’t bear to eat for the pain he’d feel afterward, of the man’s humiliation at having to defecate in a bucket in the yard because he couldn’t make it inside to the bathroom.

Strong. Yes. Determined, yes. A flawed man, but a good one. A keeper, my mom always said.

As he lay in his bed, comatose, I told him he could go, that his parents were waiting for him, that all of his dogs, his cats, were waiting to play and cuddle with him. I knew he didn’t want to die. He wasn’t ready, but I wanted him to know the others who went before him were there for him, waiting, loving.

And so it’s done.

There’s much to do in the aftermath, but the worst part is over.

Sleep well, my love.

Merry Christmas.

And now I can cry.

Holiday countdown

The energy that surrounds the holidays makes me think that my normal posts won’t do. To honor the season–mostly lightheartedly–I’m posting some holiday tune parodies. This first one, however, invokes the heart of the giving season.

HAVE A HOLLY, JOLLY, CHRISTMAS

A child's wonder

A child’s wonder

Have a holly, jolly Christmas;
And enjoy this time of year
Tell Santa Claus what gifts you want
Like scarves of soft cashmere.

Have a holly, jolly Christmas;
But remember those in need,
Santa does the best he can
We’ll  help with our good deeds.

 

Oh ho, The crowds, you know     Father Christmas
Bustling round the mall,
Choose just one charity
And share good will for all.

Have a holly, jolly Christmas,
Look, there’s Santa in the store
Lend a hand to the dear old man
Recall good works of yore.

Have a holly jolly Christmas,
And you will if only you
Will play a part
And donate from the heart
At Christmas, this year.

The creative spark of research

When I fabricate a world, I create a complete reality. Whether I’m writing historical or modern-day fiction, I like my world to mirror its time. I want the dress accurate–whether sumptuous court clothing, the simple dress of field workers, or the riding outfit of a 20th century woman. I want the dishes served at court and the pottage eaten in a humble home so well-described you can almost taste them. The sociology should be correct. For example, the plague that ravished Europe and Britain in the mid 14th century resulted in profound changes in economy, society, and religious attitudes. I even want the period’s weather to be accurate, at least broadly. The period in which The Luck of Two Magpies is set marks the beginning of the Little Ice Age, a period that that extended through to the latter half of the 19th century, and I use the occasional warmer season or heat wave to signify some paranormal or time travel event.

Aside from adding richness and texture to a novel, researching facts also triggers my creativity. The following passage, one edited out of The Luck of Two Magpies, is a result of researching weather and understanding the post-plague landscape, miles of land available for farming and not as many folk to do the work.

an outtake from The Luck of Two Magpies, c. 2014

The late start to the day and the amount of work yet to be accomplished left William short-tempered. The upset of his usual routine by this woman intruder, or whatever she was, made it hard for him to concentrate. The red of apples reminded him of her lips, their fragrance, her scent. In the sparkle of sun off Penny’s mane he saw the woman’s chestnut hair as the candlelight had fired it last night. He could swear his saddle was still warm where she sat yester eve, secured in his arms. He cursed himself for his inability to focus on the day’s issues. Even that annoyed him, for Geoffrey heard him and cast a wry glance his way.

They rode the farm.

“We need more men to work these fields, Gandulf,” William insisted. “I will not lease my

Empty farmland in the north of England

Farmland in the north of England

lands to farmers. We grow wheat enough for all our people and for the selling. I want more profit, more land for the working… not less.”

“Well and so, m’lord, ye know well as me I been tryin’ to bring new blood in.” There was annoyance in his man’s snort. “Folk doan’ breed fast enough to replace all those poor souls our fathers did say found their rest in the great plague.”  His expression grew somber.

But William chafed at his circumstances. “There is gold enough to buy more land, and more than land enough for the having to expand Norburnshire’s holdings twofold or better, and that past the doubling we did do in the past five years.”

“Aye, m’lord. I understand yer point.” Geoffrey scrubbed at his scalp, sending his short hanks of brown hair flying, leaving them bristling at odd angles from his head. “I ha’ sent a few of me more…” He grinned, displaying a missing lower molar. “‘Gifted talkers’ south to see if they can not lure us any unhappy tenants from Nottingham and Surrey. Sent ‘em with contract and some coin. I hear as the three past years o’ drought and cool weather have affected ‘em mightily. May be as they might be won over to a move.”

“What did you include in your contract, Gandulf?”  William’s suspicious tone and wary stare produced only a shrug from his man.

“Fittingly, m’lord. Jus’ the same as them what’s here already gets,” Geoffrey said. “It has worked ‘afore.” Geoffrey’s brown eyes focused inward. “Promise of a roof to keep out the rain, food in yer family’s bellies, and a bit o’ what a man grows to sell for hisself makes a man glad to come, an’ your word to reward them is there a profit when all’s done and sold keeps ‘em here. Near a full fourth of our farm folk are new. They come o’er the last four years. And we been able to keep ‘em, even wi’ our own drought and odd weather.”

William was glad for the break in the drought, and for the heat this year, aberrant as it was. A longer growing season meant a bountiful crop, barring bad luck, of course. “God save us we need no bad luck,” he muttered as he thought of the loss of one of his haying wagons, the flooding of three flax fields in heavy August rains, and the more recent lightning attacks by some Scottish rabble that had lost him nearly a hundred sheep, the Spanish variety known for the softness of their wool. It galled him no end to think they’d end up as supper for some dirty clan or other.

Was the woman upstairs Scotch?  She didn’t sound like one. Mayhap a spy? That might be. Richard Angevin was diabolical enough to pluck some beauty or other from England’s gardens and send her here to win his secrets. It might be. He’d have to turn his mind to considering that in detail… after he’d seen the stone circle.

He turned Penny into the warm eastern breeze.

##

Next time, how research even sparks love scenes…. (whew!)

The queen is dead, long live the king

As I wrote about in an earlier blog post, I had to put down my adored older Weimaraner Tessa in December. I mentioned that I was glad to yet have another Weimaraner, Dash, at home. That he’d be my comfort.

Tess and Dash in happier times

Tess and Dash in happier times

Well, I won’t say it never entered my mind, but I will admit that I didn’t give much thought to Dash’s own grief cycle.

But he did grieve. And was sad.

It began that first night we came home without Tess. We were broken up, but still we noticed that he sat at the back door for an hour watching for her. Dash, the dog with the insatiable appetite, didn’t ask for dinner that night, and when I prepared it, he ate almost as an after-thought. I had to coax him to his dish. He ate most, but as he is a dog who usually cleans his bowl and then chases it all over the floor as he licks it clean, I understood he was not himself.

Thinking he might be sick, I began to watch him.

That first week, he looked out the window a lot, and when he lay in his bed, often stared at Tess’s empty bed. He became my shadow, never leaving my side. If a dog’s expression could be called grim, his could.

The dog who usually stood on my toes, nose glued to the edge of the counter while I prepared his meals, now sat politely in the middle of the kitchen and waited, almost lethargically. He followed me to his bowl and ate, but not with his usual relish. The only time he was really happy was when my husband took him to the park and he could run around. During one such outing, I took advantage of his absence and put Tess’s bed away. I’d already removed her feeding bowls.

I weeded out her toy basket—each dog had their own as their pursuits varied. Tess had pot-bellied stuffed toys to suckle on, something she’d done since she was a puppy. She would only play ‘catch me,’ a game in which she held one of her toys and we chased her around. She seldom wanted to give them up or chase and retrieve balls.

Dash, on the other hand, loves to play. He loves toys with squeakers, he loves balls. He chases and retrieves. And he’ll give up the house keys for a marrow bone.

So while Dash was at the park I threw all of her stuffed toys out except three. They were barely used and Dash sometimes carries one in his mouth when he greets houseguests. It keeps him from jumping up on visitors. Tess taught him that.

Dash in his tie

Melancholy Dash at Christmas

Christmas came. He was diverted with new toys and his stocking full of cookies, but he wasn’t really happy, and that evening I found him staring at the box her stocking was in. I’d hastily hidden it there when I unpacked the family stockings and then forgot it, unwilling to throw it out but determined not to keep it. He slept, deeply, by the box until bedtime.

Mid-afternoon on the Friday after Christmas, Dash got up from his bed and went straight to Tess’s toy basket. He took one of the stuffed bears in his mouth and stood still. Just stood there, staring into space. It was as if he were trying to remember her, or wondering where she was, or maybe he could see her. Who knows.

It is now a full month since our Tess is gone. Dash’s appetite has returned full throttle. He appears happy again. He continues to love his park outings.

When Tess was alive, she was the queen. He was the prince. She’d make her wishes known, be they petting or treats or going for a walk. He’d stand behind her and wait for us to do her bidding, knowing he’d receive his share. Now, a month after her death, Dash is learning to be his own man. He still follows me around, but he’s not Mr. Velcro anymore. If he’d rathehappy_dashr stay in the sunny spot, he will. If he wants to be petted and scratched, he comes and asks—and receives. He’s not shy about asking for his treats anymore. By and large, he’s gotten to understand it’s good to be king.

Heartfelt Wishes

2013 has been a year filled with struggle and, in some aspects, sadness, and so, rather than look back upon its obstacles and low points, I will look forward to its successor’s promise.

I wish you what I wish for myself in 2014–health, peace of mind and peace in the world, the love of family, a modicum of financial success in our endeavors, a satisfying creative life, and the kind of intellectual curiosity that keeps us all mentally engaged and digging for answers.

Happy New Year to all.

Six Novels, One Incomparable Series

Note: I usually post these in the Recent Reads section, but Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles series is so awesome I decided to make it my post.

I recently finished a novel series by the late Dorothy Dunnett entitled “The Lymond Chronicles.” Written between 1961 and 1975, the six novels cover the exploits of one Francis Crawford of Lymond in the years 1547 through 1558.

Blond, Scottish, a lesser noble by birth, Francis Crawford of Lymond grew up a voracious reader, mastering an encyclopedic knowledge of philosophy, literature, math and the sciences. He’s a talented musician and topnotch strategist whose studies and imagination have enabled him to come up with wildly original tactics. A non-comformist by nature, he’s suspicious of political and religious causes, and though he is a devotee of rigor in all things and a stickler for following rules—his rules—he garners the undying loyalty of his followers and the love of his admirers despite his apparent coldness.

The series—The Game of Kings, Queens’ Play, The Disorderly Knights, Pawn in Frankincense, The Ringed Castle, and Checkmate—unfolds as an odyssey as we follow brash and arrogant young Crawford through his exploits as he matures, finds, serves, and discards the exalted powers of royalty as a spy and later as head of a mercenary army. Often an unsympathetic character, Francis can be cruel, but remains true to his moral code at all costs.

Professionally, he succeeds in becoming more famous and in greater demand, while personally he becomes more isolated, defended always by his own mettle, his intelligence, his ability to display a rapier wit in Latin, English, French, Spanish, old Scots, Italian, Russian, and Arabic. (In fact, there are so many of these quotes, that Dorothy Dunnett aided in the compilation of a ‘companion’ book that delivers background information on the multitude of characters that people the series as well as explanations of the classical allusions, and literary and other quotations used in the Chronicles.)

Gallant when he sees the moral right, he is nonetheless driven to attain his own goals by whatever means necessary, whether they include bringing a psychopath to justice, setting a nation on its path to a stable future, or offering a platonic marriage to an innocent to protect her good name. Sometimes he’s successful, other times not, but through it all he strives to balance professional career with a personal life that’s disintegrating before his eyes.

Dunnett leads us a merry chase, deftly weaving adventure after adventure through the warp and weft of her historic fabric, for it’s history that provides her with plot elements and prominent characters, twists and turns written in treaties, provided by political marriages and alliances, wars, and piracy. The Tudors, the Habsburgs, the Valois, the Stewarts, Ivan the Terrible, the Knights of St. John, the Ottoman Empire of Suleiman the Magnificent, all invite her into their political, economic and power intrigues in a time when the number of women in positions of power—whether rulers, regents, heirs to a throne, wives or mistresses of kings or of lesser men, or naïve do-gooders—offer Dunnett the ability to engage them in the exploration of women’s roles.

Above all, it is Dunnett’s ability to afford us twist upon twist of plot points, leaving us in complete awe as she drives Crawford to a failed professional life and mental and physical breakdowns that lead him to a shattering conclusion: service to his country, reconciliation with his family and his one true love is of paramount importance.

While these novels take place about 150 years after the period in which The Luck of Two Magpies is set, Dunnett’s imagination, the fluidity of her writing, the breathless pace of action, and above all, her insight into and compassion for her characters, is nonpareil. And if the style is somewhat outmoded and overwritten by today’s standards, it’s still a classic with a  capital ‘C’ all the way. If you love medieval and renaissance tales, compelling stories that span nations and decades, I heartily recommend Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles.

Of Horses, Harnesses and Henins

The other day, I was asked why I chose 1398 for the setting of The Luck of Two Magpies. I didn’t select the date consciously, though in my mind, the medieval period always seemed so romantic, with its knights in shining armor, war horses, lances and tower castles, and ladies to be wooed and won.

I grew up with horses, as my dad bought them for us to ride, even if it meant driving into the Bronx where they were boarded. Most little girls love horses and so did I, though unlike most little girls, my love was had at close range, in the saddle, or with curry and brush and hoof pick in hand. I could observe and learn their personalities, and laugh at some of their pranks.

As a child, I lalso liked to put models together and paint them—not ships, or airplanes, no.inthelists The models I loved were–what else?–the horses I adored, though now they were made of plastic, thickly muscled and clad in caparisons, their long faces protected by iron shields called chanfrons. Their riders were inevitably harnessed (armor-clad), with lances at the ready, either couched or at rest, held vertically, the butt of the lance resting on the rider’s armored boot or stirrup.

Some knights swung broadswords, others maces. Some horses stood proudly, others were at the charge (these required stands to hold them upright).

joustAs I painted the horses and their ornamental drapings in bright colors(sometimes I copied heraldic signs; other times I made my own up), I imagined youthful riders,  knights errant—chafing to prove themself in the pas d’armes. Other times, they were black knights bringing their contests to the lists in the hopes of defeating the white knights for fame, power, lady loves or gold.

And of course, the ladies were always porcelain-skinned, perfectly proportioned, chiffon or brocaded gowned, their locks hidden beneath coifs or henins–at least those were the ladies in heninimages I found in books. 

That much floated up from childhood, but it wasn’t until after I’d imagined William, Margarida and Elisa that I read about the usurpation of King Richard III’s crown by his cousin Henry Hereford (whom we know as Bolingbroke) in 1399, and the pieces of the story began to fall into place.

Query Condensation

One of the things I like about e-queries is the immediate gratification of hitting the send button. As well, though I shouldn’t, I like the cleanness of rejections via email. Because you know they’re probably not responding (since you’ve read the submission guidelines and know, for the most part, that an agency will only contact you via email or phone if they’re interested), you can set up a chart with agent names, dates their queries have been sent out, and include a column in which you note the expected date of return response (ie., some agencies say 4-6 weeks, some, 6-8 weeks, etc.). When that date arrives with no contact, you can simply gray out the agent. Simple. Neat. Somewhat like working in a vacuum. Sterile. Non-emotional.

When an agent (or agency) does favor me with a response, even as a rejection, I think

                                    My favorite critics

My favorite critics

more fondly of them as I gray out their entry in my chart. Their gray will perhaps be more a warm taupe than a suffocating charcoal. Well, maybe not suffocating. After all, I’m already in a vacuum.

And because e-queries are digital, think of the trees I’m saving! Why, surely, one centenary-sycamore’s worth already.

But whether e- or snail- query, the thing that remains difficult for me is confining myself to a simple, single story-line overview. Not mentioning Margarida de Beaumont, William’s mother and Elisa’s mentor, or Justin Beaufort, archdeacon of Durham, is trying. After all, they’re integral parts of the story. Not alluding to the undercurrent of religion, the unrequited love triangle, or even to the nature of love and commitment in more than its simplest forms, makes me chew my nails in desperation.

But all of that isn’t really allowed in a query. Too long. Too dense. Muddies the storyline, I suppose. I guess  you have to buy the book to read all about it.

                              You said _what_?

You said _what_?

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to query some more….

A Rose by any Other Name?

Today’s post is a short one. I’ve mentioned before that A Traveler’s Tale is most likely only my novel’s working title. I’ve been told that that particular title has been used before, in whole or in part, and recently.

So it also won’t come as a surprise that I occasionally turn my thoughts to alternative titles for Elisa and William’s story, and that recently I’ve played with a few of these.

Sorceress, Wisewoman, Witch, Wife is one, but it’s probably too long. A variation could be Sorceress, Enchantress, Witch, Wife, or even Sorceress, Horse Thief, Wisewoman, Wife. But of course, all are likely too long, too.

A Future in the Past, is nice, but only just. Same for Future Past, which sounds more like an errant English verb tense than a book title.

Oddly, I like this next one, even though it’s only bearing on the story is that it refers to a line in the novel. It is: The Luck of Two Magpies or The Luck of Magpies.BrugesClock Tower397

I thought I had a photo of two magpies in my photo file of Bruges. Turns out it’s hardcopy and not electronic, so here’s one of  the city’s clock tower.

And with that, I’m out of ideas… for now.

Well, I said it would be a short post.