April 2009

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26 Apr Leporid Adventures

This morning the Broadcasting Legend™ happened to look out our front window, and this is what he saw among the plantings:

How much is that bunny in the window?

He called the doggies. (Who could resist?) Chaos ensued. It turned out there were actually two bunnies under the bushes. They calmly went on eating our tender new calla lily leaves as the dogs howled their heads off inside and I tried to fight my way to the window to take pictures. We have three or four generations a year of rabbits in our neighborhood, and by now I suspect the “Pay no attention to the man beagle behind the curtain window” gene is bred into them.

A fine start to a gray, stormy Sunday.

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25 Apr The Blob at the Edge of the Universe and the Shaman Queen of Ancient Japan

Could anything be more irresistible? It seems an international team of astronomers have discovered what’s called an extended Lyman-Alpha blob so far away that what they’re seeing (given the speed of light) is something that happened at the dawn of the universe. It doesn’t look like much but to astronomers it’s a mysterious and fascinating object.

It has been named Himiko, after a queen in ancient Japan, said to be a sorceress. Quoted from Japan in the Chinese Dynastic Histories: Later Han Through Ming Dynasties by Tsunoda Ryusaku, tr. 1951:

She occupied herself with magic and sorcery, bewitching the people. Though mature in age, she remained unmarried. She had a younger brother who assisted her in ruling the country. After she became the ruler, there were few who saw her. She had one thousand women as attendants, but only one man. He served her food and drink and acted as a medium of communication. She resided in a palace surrounded by towers and stockades, with armed guards in a state of constant vigilance.

Even more intriguing:

When Himiko passed away, a great mound was raised, more than a hundred paces in diameter. Over a hundred male and female attendants followed her to the grave. Then a king was placed on the throne, but the people would not obey him. Assassination and murder followed; more than one thousand were thus slain. A relative of Himiko named Iyo, a girl of thirteen, was [then] made queen and order was restored.

Makes me want to write a young-adult historical with the shaman princess as the heroine.

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24 Apr May It Please the Court…

No, not that kind of court. A law-and-lawyers kind of court. I found this linked this morning in a Twitter tweet by Karen Essex, author of the wonderful Leonardo’s Swans, and it absolutely made my day.

“May It Please the Court” by Maira Kalman.

When something has delightful, quirky drawings and starts out with “In ancient Mesopotamia…” I’m hooked. Now I have to find a copy of the version of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style that Kalman illustrated. It has a basset hound on the cover. Clearly it was meant to belong to me.

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22 Apr Writing Like Nostradamus

Nostradamus wrote a lot more than his well-known Prophecies and Almanacs. He cast many individual horoscopes and made many individual prophecies to private (usually noble or royal) persons. In the course of my research for The Second Duchess I found a prophecy Nostradamus made privately to Alfonso II d’Este, the Duke of Ferrara, although I won’t go into detail about it here because who knows? Perhaps one day it will play a part in another Ferrara story.

However, this seed of information is presently flowering into a lovely plotline in the new book I’m working on. What if, what if. What if Nostradamus had written a series of prophetic quatrains for Mary of Guise, the dowager Queen and Regent of Scotland, mother of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots? Mary of Guise visited France in 1550-1551 and might, just might have met Nostradamus, whose first published Almanac was for the year 1550.

What if the secret quatrains revealed the future of Scotland, vis-a-vis England and France? Imagine what, say, Elizabeth Tudor in England and Catherine de’ Medicis in France would have given to lay their hands on those prophecies.

What if Mary of Guise kept them in a silver casket? What if it was the same casket that eventually held the Casket Letters? What happened to the casket in between?

The thing is, to make this work I have to write the prophecies myself. So I have to write like Nostradamus. Now that is historical fiction with sprinkles.

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20 Apr In the Courts of the Sun

I am such a sucker for mysterious theories like the Mayan prediction of the end of the world on December 21, 2012. (Apparently it isn’t so much the end of the world as it is the end of a cycle. But I digress.) I also love fiction set in historical Mesoamerica—Gary Jennings’ Aztec, for example, and Simon Levack’s wonderful and not-well-enough-known Yaotl mysteries. So when I saw Brian d’Amato’s In the Courts of the Sun I snatched it up immediately.

I wasn’t disappointed. Wow. What a ride. What an immersion in an ancient, utterly alien culture. It’s part historical fiction, part science fiction, part speculative fiction, part game-theory treatise. The dissonance between the modern-day protagonist and the world he’s thrown into is staggering and really brilliantly done.

I do have to ask, though—why does every book I read these days seem to end with a tacked-on “hook” into the next book? Why can’t a book just end, complete and beautiful in itself? I loved this book and I would have found and purchased a sequel, all by my lonesome. Really, I would.

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18 Apr Fred and Hank

The ever-fabulous Diana Fox pointed me to this blog. It has since become one of my daily pleasures. Who wouldn’t love two beagle boys marking their way across the country? With restaurant reviews! Scenery! Music lists! And more bonus beagle pictures!

Fred and Hank Mark America

I only wish they hadn’t had to skip Dallas due to time constraints. Maybe on the next trip Fred and Hank can meet Cressie and Boo!

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17 Apr Grave Goods

I am a committed fan of Ariana Franklin’s Mistress of the Art of Death tales. The third book in the series, Grave Goods, finds Adelia Aguilar, medica of Salerno and the English King Henry II’s unofficial medical examiner (or “mistress of the art of death”), sent to Glastonbury to examine two mysterious skeletons which may or may not be the remains of Arthur and Guinevere. (There is fascinating historical background for this, which of course I had to research further after reading the book—one of the great pleasures of historical fiction.)

Franklin’s wry humor intertwines with mysterious monks, suspicious inn-keepers, vanishing traveling parties, terrifying (and sometimes quirkily sympathetic) forest outlaws, walled-up crypts on Glastonbury Tor, sealed secret passages, brooding marshes, and of course the forensic mystery of the skeletons—who are they? How did they come to be buried as they were?

I loved this book, as I loved the first two in the series. I wish, however, that Franklin had not added the very last paragraph. I won’t give away the content of the paragraph or even go into detail about why it jarred me so, but I would be very interested to hear other reactions!

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16 Apr Historical Fiction with Sprinkles

Perfect pie crust, light and flaky. It even has sprinkles!For a writer, I don’t actually write much about writing here, do I?

For me, writing a book is like making piecrust. (Mmmm, pie.) One must pay attention to what one is doing and pull it together with a light hand. Work it too much, and it gets tough and gray. Give it to someone else to play with, and it may turn out to be mince instead of apple. Take it out of the oven every few minutes to see what it looks like, and it will never be more than half-baked.

So although I am in the very early stages of working on a new project, I won’t be writing about it in much detail. It’s also set in the sixteenth century. It also features some historical personages and some fictional characters. It also combines elements of mystery, adventure, romance, character study, fabulous food and magnificent costumery, palace intrigue and sudden death.

Or as I like to call it—historical fiction with sprinkles.

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15 Apr Cressie Hesitates

Tennis ball? Pot roast? Tennis ball? Pot roast?Cressie has been sulking since I posted the picture of Boo. “Me me me!” she’s been whimpering. “Me too!” So here she is.

There’s a story behind this picture. (Isn’t there always?) As you can see Cressie had collected a tennis ball from somewhere, and to make sure it was safe from predators (those Schnauzers, you know) she took it to her pillow with her when it was time for her afternoon nap.

I thought she was so cute curled up around her tennis ball that I got down on the floor to take a picture. Just then the Broadcasting Legend™ opened the refrigerator door. Both dogs can hear that refrigerator door from anywhere in the house. (Actually, they could probably hear it from down the street.) Her head came up and she put out one paw preparatory to leaping up and running into the kitchen just in case Master dropped a pot roast. Then she froze. I could see her little mental wheels going around. Tennis ball? Pot roast? Tennis ball? Pot roast? I snapped the shot at the last possible moment, because in the next second she was up and gone.

Poor tennis ball. It just didn’t measure up.

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13 Apr Boudin the Sentry

Boudin the SentryBoo sits at our front windows and waits for intruders. This means little girls on bicycles, teenage boys on scooters, frisking squirrels and rabbits in the front yard, and other dogs being walked along the front sidewalk. In our neighborhood that includes Golden Retrievers, Chocolate Labs, a Min-Pin, a magnificent and playful Weimaraner, a Dachshund-Poodle mix named Max (I suggested “Yankee” because as a Dachshund-Poodle he was clearly a Doodle, but for some reason that didn’t fly), and most dangerous of all, the Schnauzer.

Boo barks at all of them. Mostly he’s just chatting. But we always know when the poor woman with the Schnauzer walks by, because Boo goes ballistic. We have no idea why the Schnauzer in particular is The Enemy, but when Boo sees him he flings himself at the window and howls his beagle howl. The Broadcasting Legend™ and I look at each other and say wisely, “Must be the Schnauzer.”

Good thing we have Boo, or we’d be overrun with Schnauzers.

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09 Apr The Pink Moon

Tonight is April’s full moon—the “Pink Moon.” It’s called that, or so the story goes, because in the spring the meadows are covered with moss pinks, also known as wild ground phlox. Other names for April’s full moon are the Grass Moon, the Egg Moon, and among some coastal tribes of native Americans, the Fish Moon, because in April the fish swam upstream to spawn.

Funny thing is, the moon actually was pink tonight, as it rose over our back fence and the rooflines of our back neighbors’ houses. I tried to take a picture of it, but until I get the gizmo that attaches my camera to the telescope all I’m going to get are blurry bright circles. But truly, it was pinkish. Probably just some kind of esoteric pollution—but I’ll cling to my romantic notions, thank you.

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07 Apr No Cucumbers Yet, But…

We have lilies:

Backyard lilies on a cool, overcast morning

And we have Peace roses:

A full-blown Peace rose

My beloved Robert Browning’s Pippa knew of what she sang:

The year’s at the spring,
And day’s at the morn;
Morning’s at seven;
The hill-side’s dew-pearl’d;
The lark’s on the wing;
The snail’s on the thorn;
God’s in His heaven—
All’s right with the world!

Although here along the Elm Fork of the Trinity, it would most likely be a mockingbird instead of a lark.

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06 Apr The Prince of Castaways

I love Edwin Arlington Robinson’s work so much, and I think my favorite (although it’s hard to choose) piece is “Flammonde,” from The Man Against the Sky. In fact, I suspect reading “Flammonde” for the first time when I was probably ten or twelve made such an indelible impression on me that my favorite sort of male main character, both to read about and to write, is a Flammonde-like mystery:

He never told us what he was,
Or what mischance, or other cause,
Had banished him from better days
To play the Prince of Castaways.
Meanwhile he played surpassing well
A part, for most, unplayable;
In fine, one pauses, half afraid
To say for certain that he played.

Like another of my great favorites, dear Mr. Browning’s “My Last Duchess,” “Flammonde” tells us a story about an enigmatic man, both attractive and repellent. However, unlike Browning’s Duke of Ferrara, who speaks to his mysterious listener and thus reveals himself (however one might interpret that revelation—see The Second Duchess), Flammonde says nothing: we see him only through the eyes of a puzzled observer:

Why was it that his charm revealed
Somehow the surface of a shield?
What was it that we never caught?
What was he, and what was he not?

There is a story behind “Flammonde,” and what a lovely novel it would make. Just looking at that picture of Caroline Swan’s house makes me curious, so curious, to know what went on behind those precisely balanced, shuttered windows. Whatever it was, it did not end well:

Rarely at once will nature give
The power to be Flammonde and live.

Yes, I’m a romantic. I admit it. Absolutely incurable.

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03 Apr Tzatziki Time is on the Horizon

Cucumber blossom (from last year)
I think the frost is over, and I’m about to sow my cucumber seeds. Mmm, fresh cucumbers straight from the vine! That means TZATZIKI!

Tzatziki is a Greek sauce for souvlaki and gyros, although we gobble it up as a dip with pita triangles (or, to be frank, with just about any sort of chip we can lay our hands on). If you can find thick Greek yogurt, use that—it’s turning up in grocery stores more and more. If you can’t find Greek yogurt, use regular full-fat yogurt, well drained.

There are as many recipes for tzatziki as there are Greek cooks. Here’s the Broadcasting Legend™’s version:

1 quart plain full-fat yogurt
1 cucumber
1 clove of garlic
The zest of one lemon
Kosher salt to taste—start with half a teaspoon
2 teaspoons of dried dill
Fresh dill for garnish

The night before (don’t you hate it when recipes start with “The night before…”?), strain the yogurt. It’s easy—line a large strainer with cheesecloth (a couple of dampened paper towels will do in a pinch), put it over a glass bowl, and scoop in the yogurt. Cover the whole shebang lightly with more cheesecloth or paper towels and leave it in the fridge overnight.

In the morning, discard the liquid in the bowl. In the strainer you will have delicious thick yogurt. Put this yogurt into the rinsed and dried bowl. Rinse the strainer because you’re going to need it again.

Peel, seed, and rough-chop the cucumber. Put it in a food processor (yes, we take the easy way) with the garlic clove, the lemon zest, the salt and the dried dill. Process until combined. Leave it slightly chunky so your tzatziki has some texture. Drain this mixture in your strainer. Press down hard. The idea is to remove as much liquid as possible so your tzatziki is delectably thick.

Add the cucumber mixture to the yogurt and fold them together well. Taste and add salt if necessary. Divide into serving bowls and garnish with sprigs of fresh dill.

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02 Apr #Agentnonpareil

Have I mentioned lately how much I my manuscript? I’m in the last couple of chapters of revisions and I’m so happy with how it’s turning out.

I also have to say that I my agent Diana Fox for her suggestions and support. Everybody’s been talking about #agentfail and #agentwin, it seems, but for me Agent Diana transcends all the categories into #agentnonpareil. And no, I don’t mean those little chocolate candies with white sprinkles.

Although chocolate is always good.

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01 Apr The Skies of April

And speaking of stargazing: this month the Moon finds its way from planet to planet, with a star cluster thrown in for good measure; and the Lyrids return.

  • April 6: Saturn, which will look like a bright gold-colored star, appears close to the Moon tonight. Observe them together and meditate on the vast distance that actually separates them.
  • April 18: Jupiter appears a little to the lower left of the Moon in the very early morning, low in the southeast.
  • April 21: Meteors! The Lyrid meteor shower is at its best tonight. For more information click here. Meteor showers are a law unto themselves, sometimes dazzling, sometimes virtually unnoticeable. Bit of historical goodness: in 1095, an April meteor shower (almost certainly the Lyrids) was so spectacular that one Gislebert, Bishop of Lisieux, took it as a sign of heavenly approval for what became the First Crusade.
  • April 22: The Moon, Venus, and Mars appear close together low in the east, just as it begins to get light. The Moon will actually occult Venus, hiding it briefly from view.
  • April 26: The Moon, the planet Mercury and the Pleiades align low in the west-northwest as night falls. Mercury will look like a fairly bright star. The Pleiades star cluster is a little below the Moon, sandwiched between the Moon and Mercury.

Happy sky-watching!