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Monday, May 25, 2015

Medieval Cucumbers

The most memorable scene in the medieval epic on which I based Seven Noble Knights involves the antagonist, Doña Lambra, sending her servant to throw a cucumber dipped in blood at the hero, Gonzalo González. While earning my PhD, I read an article about the possible meanings of this act. Its apparent bizarreness and the way it made scholars scratch their heads so many hundreds of years later planted a seed in my mind. That seed flowered into Seven Noble Knights, 130,000 words of offenses, revenge, lust, love, and Spanishness. (More about the length later.)

So imagine my joy when I found this among my PhD papers:

30. Whoever injures someone with an egg, with a butello, or with a cucumere [two kinds of cucumber], or with any other thing that can dirty him should pay ten aurei if the plaintiff can prove it; but if not, he should clear himself with two of four named from his parish and he should be believed. [The Code of Cuenca (twelfth century) translated by James F. Powers]

It hadn't occurred to me to scan medieval legal documents for cucumber scenarios, yet here they were. Cuenca is a city in eastern Spain, a significant distance away from the area of Lara, where the bloody cucumber takes place in the legend. Apparently, cucumbers were threatening enough to merit legal rules on them in the far-flung reaches of medieval Hispanic Christendom.

Aurei were the more valuable coins of the realm, cast in gold and with legislated weights, so ten of them is not an insignificant fine. It would cover the cost of a donkey or a few goats, for sure. Or in this case, the cost of a new wardrobe. The key here seems to be the dirtiness and the difficulty of getting clothes clean in the twelfth century.

The exact same penalty and means of acquittal are prescribed for anyone who creates a slanderous ballad about someone else. Here the soil falls upon the subject's reputation, and that is even harder to clean than a twelfth-century shirt.

The seriousness of the cucumber crime in the lawbooks could make me believe the uproar in Seven Noble Knights is well earned. But let's compare the ten aurei to some other fines for offenses in the same section of The Code of Cuenca.

Anyone who breaks someone's arm or leg should pay 50 aurei, and if the limb comes all the way off, 100. A lost limb is worth ten times a ruined shirt. Acquittal for the limb requires twelve witnesses or trial by combat, a much bigger burden than the two of four witnesses required for cucumber throwing.

Scalping someone's beard will fine you 200 aurei—now we're getting into penalties that could buy five or more horses or a small house. It also costs 200 aurei (and exile) to force a stick into someone else's anus. Loss of beards and violations with foreign objects are exponentially more serious than throwing a cucumber.

In Seven Noble Knights, the cucumber incident results in the life and death situations that propel the story forward. As we see in the lawbooks, it's actually a pretty impotent gesture to merit such a response. Perhaps in the tenth century, when Seven Noble Knights takes place, it was that much harder to get a shirt clean? Or is there more going on here? Perhaps some of the lust and revenge I mentioned earlier?

Seven Noble Knights comes out in 2016 so you can find out!

Happy Memorial Day!

Monday, May 18, 2015

The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan

Like many of books I've read lately, The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan features the end of civilization. But although it takes place some undefined time after the end of life as we know it now, the characters are concerned with their present and most consider whatever came before to be as useless as legend.

In The Gracekeepers, the sea level has risen over cities and towns and only small islands remain. Some people cling to the land and a sense of heritage, but because there isn't enough to go around, many live permanently on boats. These sailors have to come to land to refuel, meet social obligations, and in the case of North's circus, perform for landlockers to earn food and survive. The landlockers don't much cotton to damplings, as the sailors are known, and the chief tension in The Gracekeepers is certain characters' longing either for land or for sea—we never do seem to be given what we really want, do we?

North loves the sea and would be perfectly content to live out her days there. But the ringmaster wants to marry her off to his son and buy a house on land for her, and what he says goes. Not only does North feel unsteady on land, but she also is going to give birth to a selkie's child. The word is never used in the novel, but the mysterious selkies must have been inspired by the Celtic legends of merpeople.

The other main character, Callanish, is the offspring of a woman and a selkie: her webbed fingers and toes shout it to the world. In order to do her duty as a Gracekeeper, she must wear shoes and gloves at all times. Callanish is not free in any way. Gracekeepers live all alone and perform funerals that involve the starvation of a small bird, a grace, to mark the end of the mourning period.

The writing is so magical and atmospheric that I didn't want The Gracekeepers to end. The strongest parts were the sections from the main characters' points of view, and some of the importance of the other characters is left totally up to the reader to decide. The omission of explicit explanations contributed to the sense of magic. One theme of the novel seems to be waiting, and the reader waits for something to happen, but the drama at the end of The Gracekeepers isn't the strongest part. This is the novel for a reader who wants to be swept into a mysterious land where the reader must decide on the meaning of people, animals, and actions based on only the most subtle of hints.

The Gracekeepers debuts tomorrow!

Novels I've Read in 2015: 
Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

Along the Far Shores by Kristin Gleeson

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

A Kiss at Kihali by Ruth Harris

Mermaids in Paradise  by Lydia Millet

Raven Brought the Light by Kristin Gleeson

The Price of Blood by Patricia Bracewell

Lucky Us by Amy Bloom

Friday, May 15, 2015

Unpredictable Worlds is Here

It's out! If you preordered the ebook, you can already enjoy these zany yet heartfelt stories. You still have a few hours to get it for only 99 cents while the network catches up... And the softcover is ready for not much money here and here.

Celebrate with a great interview at Kristin Gleeson's blog! Thanks again to Kristin, the author of some wonderful books, for asking fun, in-depth questions.

Five other amazing stops on the blog tour are all linked up for you here.

Let me know how you like the stories. More to come...

Monday, May 11, 2015

Unpredictable Worlds—The Stories Are Almost Here!

Friday is the day! Unpredictable Worlds releases for your reading pleasure! I've been taking something of a tour of some wonderful blogs in honor of this exciting time.

Jody A. Kessler has already featured Unpredictable Worlds on her blog, saying it "sounds incredibly entertaining." There you'll find an excerpt of the prize-winning story "Stairs to the Beach."

Monday, I'm at author Tina Traverse's blog.

Author Maer Wilson is hosting me on Tuesday.

I'm stopping by author Jae Blakney's blog with a great interview with my friend and fellow author Seymour Hamilton on Wednesday.

Thursday, with the pre-release excitement mounting, I'll be traveling Steven Ramírez's Glass Highway with an excerpt from my favorite thus-far unpublished story. Unpredictable Worlds will be featured on the site all month!

Friday, May 15 is release day! Please check out the fantastic interview author Kristin Gleeson did with me at her blog on that day.

Sincere thanks to all these authors for hosting me.

You still have time to get Unpredictable Worlds at the never-again bargain price of 99 cents here. Pre-order and receive the book for the lowest price, before anyone else, on release day.

The softcover edition is already available. Affordable, nicely designed, and chock-full of astonishing stories. Order it here or from Amazon, or request it at your favorite bookstore or library.

Thanks for sharing the excitement!

Saturday, May 9, 2015

The End of One Journey, The Beginning of an Even More Exciting One

The crest of Salas de los Infantes tells the Lara side of the story. 
I spent two years writing my darling baby novel and more years revising it (see some of that saga here and here), but nothing happens before its time. All the elements have finally aligned for Seven Noble Knights. Bagwyn Books will publish it in late 2016.

It was the day of my and my husband's return from ten days in Spain, our favorite place in the world. It's a long flight, but because of the time zones, we left Madrid a bit after noon and arrived stateside at about 2:30 pm. Having breakfast in Madrid and landing, only a little later in the day, somewhere so different it gives you culture shock even though you recognize everything—it creates severe nostalgic ache to go along with the raw fatigue. Moaning and groaning ensues. We took in the scenery, my husband kept reaching for the clutch in our automatic transmission, and we made it home to unpack in less than ten minutes, our few souvenirs bizarrely out of context now.

Yet some of the euphoria of the journey had imprinted on our minds and would be extended by an unexpected but long-hoped-for email. I was taking care of business when at 6:44 pm, a message came in with the subject SEVEN NOBLE KNIGHTS from the publisher I had so jubilantly submitted the full manuscript to in February. Up until now, these messages have been disappointing, so I braced myself.

"Dear Jessica," it began. "We have now finished our preliminary review of SEVEN NOBLE KNIGHTS..."

Yes, yes, but... I waited for the punch.

"...and have decided we are indeed interested in publishing."

Did I read that right?

This is a yes?

I never knew it would be so beautiful.

"This novel is very well done and hard to put down!"

That's when the tears welled up. To see my hard work pay off!

My husband entered the room and I squeaked, "I think my dreams are coming true."

It's taken a few weeks to iron out the legal mumbo-jumbo, but I can now look forward to working with professionals who specialize in medieval and renaissance fiction... on even more revisions. But really, when I came across Bagwyn, I was impressed that it's the fiction imprint of the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. I already own a few of their books! I can't imagine a more appropriate publisher for Seven Noble Knights.

Thanks to all the writers and historical fiction lovers who helped me through the drafts and the many revisions. You know who you are. I'll name names in the published acknowledgments.

[reblogged from Seven Noble Knights]

Monday, May 4, 2015

Seven Noble Knights in Modern Life

My recent trip to Spain had many life-changing moments. Most relevant to my writing, I got to see the legend upon which I based my novel Seven Noble Knights "out in the world." The events, if they ever really took place, happened more than 1000 years ago. That's a lot of time for historians, minstrels, and everyone else to make the story their own.

Most amusing to me was the way entrepreneurs could use the characters' names and count on their buying public to know what they're referring to. For example:

Mudarra Café and Grill in Salas de los Infantes
This restaurant is named for the hero of the second part of the saga, who redeems the González family after fifteen years.

Los Infantes Bakery in Salas de los Infantes
An enterprising pastry chef knew "Los Infantes" (the seven noble knights of my title) would lend his wares credibility.

Doña Lambra Hotel and Restaurant
More surprisingly, this hotel and restaurant flaunts the name of the legend's supervillain, Doña Lambra. Granted, it's located in Barbadillo del Mercado, her territory.

Barbadillo also boasts a Lambra Street!

And a twentieth-century sculptor was moved to honor Barbadillo's most notorious ruler with a rather nice statue. The inscription reads, "Doña Lambra. Between history and legend, she ruled this village in the high Middle Ages, immersed in the events that would end with the betrayal of the seven noble knights and Mudarra's revenge (10th century)." Behind Lambra, on the left, is an impression of her husband, Ruy Blásquez, the seven noble knights' uncle. On the other side, Mudarra, the great hero. The statue tells a lot of the legend with no need for reference elsewhere. My husband and I weren't sure where the statue was, so we walked what we thought was the whole town with no luck, and then asked a couple of different residents before we found it. I was thrilled to be able to speak the name of the antagonist of my novel and see recognition on people's faces. They needed no explanation!

Stories are powerful, and apparently they last through time. I'm proud to continue the legend of the seven noble knights.

Lest we forget:

Unpredictable Worlds releases for Kindle on May 15 with a softcover edition available the same day. Unpredictable Worlds is already available for preorder for only 99 cents. Once it’s out there in the world, the price will go up, so save at least 66% now and have this strangely amazing book delivered to your device on release day. Tune in next week for interviews and book blasts in honor of this book, which is the intriguing result of all my years of writing stories.