Mary Magdalene

I’d like to share with you how the character of Mary Magdalene developed in Bradley Schuster and the Holy Grail. This inside look at the writing process is only available to my blog family and not the public at large, so don’t tell.

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Writing Today!

Hooray. The double-editing is done. The prep work to start another novel is done enough. Not quite finished, but I couldn’t wait any longer.

I finished Chapter 1 of Novel #6 (not even a working title yet) today.

With your encouragement, it is first person with a female protagonist narrator. Lis, by popular acclaim.

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So what’s been happening . . .

Avalon South Carolina_1800HIGHIn case you missed in during all the news about who’s fighting who and who’s suing who, Avalon, S.C. was released on August 6th. Available for immediate download from Amazon to your device. And I know–you’ve already read it while I was posting chapters. But reading it like a regular book is a whole different experience. So in case you haven’t done so already, here is the link to buy.

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What I’ve Been Thinking

I haven’t written since I’ve been on this trip. Yes, a real live vacation from writing. But I’ve been THINKING about writing. Can’t just turn that off.

And no, I haven’t decided to write a book about sirens. Or a man who goes to the Greek Isles and encounter sirens for himself. Or falls in love with a siren. A siren who lived off the coast of Scotland in the days of King Arthur but retired and moved to sunnier lands.

Or even a book about roaches.

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Let Your Characters Go!

I preach this advice to all who will listen (both of you), and yet last week I got caught up in it myself. I had to totally recast the villain of the holy grail saga in Bradley Schuster and the Holy Grail–in the original version, the unholy trinity were Morgause, Morgan le Fay and Nimue. Of course, we all know that Morgan is not a villainess at all, and Nimue, well she’s definitely on the side of the goddess. Not to mention George Foster’s mate and the mother of Merlin’s daughter.

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Same Story, Different Novels

Had an interesting experience this week: Writing the same scene in 2 different novels.

In Bradley Schuster and the Holy Grail,  I’ve been rewriting/severely editing about Arthur and Kay’s boyhood with Merlin. Here’s a couple of paragraphs with The Grail telling the story (or course she can communicate):

Kay spent even more time at our cottage, and would have just moved in if his father had allowed it. Arthur’s foster brother was slight and awkward—you could already tell he was never going to be a great knight—but his mental agility more than made up for it. Arthur never really cozened onto mathematics, but Kay ate it up like it was fresh bread with honey. Sometimes they would play an early version of chess that Merlin had brought back from the Middle East; other times they would just match wits. Arthur was Merlin’s pupil and his hope for the future; Kay was more like a son. Continue reading

The Keys to Avalon

In my Arthurian Quiz II post on Friday, I included a picture of the castle ruins at Tintagel. That picture brought about this comment exchange:

STELLA: Question: Have you been to that castle? If not, do you plan to go? How much/many of the things you weave into your story (on the historical side, not the contemporary) have you visited/seen?

RUSTY: While it seems like a simple question, the answer is long and convoluted. So I think I’ll post on that very thing on Tuesday.

STELLA: Oh! I can’t wait to see it!

OK, Stella (and those who are also waiting on pins and needles but didn’t comment)–your wait is over.

Back in 2008 (I think), I went to our chemical plant in Wales on a business trip. It was summer–weather was nice, timing was right–so I invited Kate to meet up with me on Friday and spend a long weekend sightseeing. A week in London 14 years had been our only trip to the UK before that.

Three days to sightsee in SW England or Wales! What did I want to see? Arthur sights, of course. Glastonbury, for certain. Tintagel. Caerleon. Months before the trip, I began researching in earnest about how best to use the limited time.

About that time, my friend Heather (same Heather who comments here occasionally) gave me a book called The Keys to Avalon. It is deep and scholarly, but Arthurphile that I am, I couldn’t put it down.

There were two basic premises for the book. The work that “launched” Arthur as Britain’s foremost myth was Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain, written in Latin c. 1136. In the introduction, Geoffrey stated that Walter the Archdeacon presented him with “a certain very ancient book written in the British language,” and that he translated that book into Latin. This has long been considered a literary device to give credibility to the book rather than a true statement.

A handful of Welsh translations of the History exist from the period shortly after 1136. But here is the strange thing: all of the Welsh manuscripts contain material that is not in the Latin version. Hmm, the authors thought. What if the Welsh version was the original, and that is the ‘ancient’ book that Geoffrey used?

History of the Kings of Britain locates a number of events in relation to “the wall.” It has long been assumed that this refers to Hadrian’s Wall, a Roman fortification that runs from sea to sea between England and Scotland to keep the Picts at bay. That makes Arthur’s realm the whole of England. Unfortunately, it would have been impossible to maintain a kingdom over that large an area in the 5th and early 6th centuries. That lends evidence that the entire account is fictional.

But the History refers to “east of the wall” and “west of the wall.” Since Hadrian’s Wall runs east-west, those references don’t make sense. The second premise of The Keys to Avalon is: suppose “the wall” doesn’t refer to Hadrian’s wall but rather the Wall of Severus?

The Wall of Severus is more commonly known as “Offa’s Dyke,” an earthen ditch and rampart that runs along the border between England and Wales. It has long been attributed to Offa, an 8th century king of Mercia. But it is highly unlikely that either the technology or the social structure existed in Britain during the 8th century to accomplish that task. So historians also consider that the wall may have been built by the Romans during the reign of Severus, 193-211.

united_kingdom_map2Map showing the locations of Hadrian’s Wall and Offa’s Dyke

Offas-DykeRemnants of Offa’s Dyke as it exist today (I have been there)

When you put these two premises together, it shifts the landscape of Arthur 90º from the whole of England to Wales. Then the story matches the capabilities of the time, and the reference in Geoffrey’s work begin to make sense.  The authors worked to verify their premises by locating and translating old Welsh poems that existing in single copies in various churches and abbeys in Wales.

By the time I had finished The Keys to Avalon, I was totally convinced that the historical Arthur was a Welsh king or war leader, not  English at all. That made Tintagel a tourist trap rather than a must-see pilgrimage for the true Arthurphile.

Kate and I ended up spending our days in the UK exploring Neolithic ruins instead. Tombs and cairns and standing stones dot the Welsh landscape as well as much of southwest England. We ended in Avebury, which is featured prominently in Return from Avalon (and Points West).

And that’s why I’ve not been to  Tintagel.

Rusty’s Arthurian landscape expands Arthur’s realm out of Wales to take in SW England, including Bath, Glastonbury, and other parts of Sommerset. But that is acceptable artistic license, don’t you think?

PembrokeshireThe stunning Welsh Neolithic Cairn Pembrokeshire

The Critical Read

A key part of the writing process–a very critical part for me (no pun intended), certainly–is the critical read.

A critical read is when you sit down with your novel in one hand and a red pen in the other and read it cover to cover in a relatively short time. Pretending that you didn’t write it. Looking for every possible shortcoming, plot weakness, inconsistency, and problem. Along with all the places that the writing could be improved (although that’s not the focus on the 1st rewrite). You don’t FIX everything, just NOTE everything.

It took me a lot longer than I expected to incorporate all the changes, suggestions, etc. into a single draft, convert everything to black so I wouldn’t have to pay $1/page to get it printed out, and get a clean copy. So I didn’t start the critical read until yesterday.

When I went looking for a red pen to get started, I found a green one there in my drawer. I thought it might be a sign that I should pretend I was SusanH as I was reading the draft. Gave me the willies for a moment. But I couldn’t find a purple pen, so I decided it was mere coincidence. Whew.

I started The Adventures of Sir Kay (I’m going to have to come up with a better title pretty soon) back at the end of June, 2013. I was posting Chapters 16, 17, somewhere around there, of Avalon, S.C. on my blog for you to read. Yeah, that long ago. That’s about how long it’s been since I read the opening chapters.

Now matter how fresh you try to keep things in your mind, June was a long time ago. Reading a novel in a few days is a much different experience than reading it over 8 months as you write it. For one thing, the flow is VERY different than you think it is.

In a very telling introduction to Buffalo Girls (as I remember it), Larry McMurtry noted that as a writer, you spend an inordinate amount of time reading the words of the same author–yourself. And after a while, it all seems stale. But I am happy to report, that is NOT my experience as a writer so far. And it certainly hasn’t been true for Sir Kay.

One of the very, very best things that happens to a writer is when you read something that you wrote a while ago and it delights you all over again. So far, that’s been my experience with Sir Kay. There are obvious holes, and things that need quite a bit of work. But there are also those moments of joy when something that I wrote several months ago makes me laugh out loud.

And the conversation between two middle-age geeks when he meets his lady love the first time . . . ah. Sigh.

And falling for Oswald all over again.

It’s been a fun couple of days so far. And unlike the unfortunate Sir Kay, who got to sampe the delights of kaffka when Merlin brought some back from the Middle East but it’s long since gone, I get to drink coffee as I read.

I’m still a couple of weeks from beginning to post. Maybe the week of Feb 24th. I’ll keep you posted.


Writers You Admire

This blog post is an extract of a larger post that’s coming out in the Examiner on Sunday. If you haven’t read any of these posts, go check it out–they’re a lot of fun.

The last post was a writing exercise where three of us alternated paragraphs in a short “story,” A Man Walked Into a Bar.

I’ve only extracted my answers to the questions; you’ll have to go to the Examiner on Sunday to get the other author’s wit and wisdom.


STELLA: Who are some writers that you really admire? Why?

RUSTY: “Admire” is a tough word to pin down. In 2013 I read both The Great Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises. Those books are stunningly brilliant.

But one can only admire Hemmingway from a distance. I could never aspire to write like him, because he is a genius and I’m simply not. Even on my best days (although on my best I days I can pretend that I am).

Over the years dozens of authors have made it to my ‘A List.’ That means I actively pursue and read every word they’ve written. Two of the writer’s on Will’s list of ‘Mainstays’ (Will Graham is one of the writers who participated in this article), John D. MacDonald and Ian Fleming, were both on my ‘A List.’ I liked John D. MacDonald so well that I named my firstborn Travis after Travis McGee, his best character.

But for the purposes of this article, I’m going to define ‘admire’ as ‘admire a writer as a personal role model.’ And for me, the three biggies are Kurt Vonnegut, Tom Robbins, and Christopher Moore. They helped me define my writing voice.

STELLA: Have your favorites changed over the years? What brought that about?

RUSTY: In high school, I considered Steinbeck the greatest 20th century author. He was more accessible, and appealed to my teenage angst more than, say, Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby has gotten a whole lot better since I read it in the 60’s).

I was introduced to Vonnegut in 1969 when Cat’s Cradle was assigned in my college freshman English course. Thus began a life-long love of his novels. I read Timequake in 2005, which Vonnegut called in the Prologue “my last book.” Two years later he was dead. At least I had Timequake to say goodbye and those last couple of years to get used to the idea.

Robbins and Moore replaced other writers as role models as I recognized what I could do relatively well (offbeat humor) and what I couldn’t do at all (serious literary fiction) as a writer.

STELLA: If you could write like any one author, which one would that be?  If it’s not the same ones you listed above, why this one?

RUSTY: J. K. Rowling, maybe? She’s sold 400,000,000 books in 16 years and earned an estimated $800,000,000 in royalties. I don’t really write for the money, but it’d be kind of fun to get a 7 figure royalty check once in your life.

(OK, that answer is totally cheating. I knew it when I gave it. So I’m going to ask a related question a different way and not duck the answer this time).

IMAGINARY INTERVIEWER: Let me ask a different but related question. Suppose you could have been the author of just one book that has ever been written. Which one would you choose?

MILDLY CHASTENED RUSTY: That’s a really tough question. I could say Cat’s Cradle and be really happy with that answer. My “favorite” book ever in The Magus by John Fowles; I would certainly be satisfied if I had written that book. The book that I have read more than any other is Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising (except it might actually be Cat’s Cradle). I’d be happy with that, even.

But since I get to pick from any book that’s ever been written, I’m going to take To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Unquestionable greatness. I love the characters, particularly Scout. To have been read and admired by that many people, well that’d be hard to beat. So I’m going with that one.

admired book collage

Editing: A Love-Hate Relationship

I’ve just moved from doing a lot of writing to not doing much writing at all, and at the same time poised on the edge overlooking a great chasm . . . of editing.

I have a true love-hate relationship with editing. You can’t be an effective writer without being a good editor, so you’ve got to suck it up and do it. And do it well. Without whining and bitching about it. But.

What I love about editing:

  1. I love good writing. A well-written sentence is a piece of dark chocolate wrapped in a rainbow and sprinkled with a twist of imagination. I love to read something I wrote sometime in the past and think, “Hey! This is good!”
  2. There is something immensely satisfying in completing a good rewrite and knowing that what you’ve finished is way better than when you started.
  3. My father taught me to appreciate good craftsmanship. I’ll never be as good as he was: don’t have the patience. He could take more time sanding a drawer front than I was willing to spend on an entire piece of furniture. But I learned to appreciate the beauty of something done well.
  4. Editing happens in big chunks. You can see real progress in a hurry. It puts you closer to publication in steps that you can immediately appreciate.

What I hate about editing:

  1. It’s not writing. It takes away writing time and spends it on something that isn’t writing.
  2. It’s simply not as creative. The best sentences that comes out of a rewrite are every bit as creative, and take every  bit as much imagination, as those that come out of a first draft. There just aren’t as many of them. For me, anyway.
  3. Expanding on #2. For me, editing doesn’t consistently engage the subconscious. Your invisible friends don’t get to run and frolic in the meadow. Mostly it’s you and your English teacher, although some days it’s Spring and you get to hold class outside.
  4. It’s not writing.

The Adventures of Sir Kay will be fun to edit. I have some fundamental problems to work out. The conflict between Kay and Aggravaine needs serious expansion. In the first draft, the reader doesn’t appreciate how screwed up Kay is; that, for the first time in his life, he doesn’t have any idea how to accomplish something. More tension. Etc.

But it has good bones. And a lot of really good sentences already. Just needs some love.


And then on top of that . . .

If my next project is to rewrite Bradley Schuster and the Holy Grail, that will be 20% writing and 80% editing. Back to back! Aargh. And worse, no matter when I decide to do it, it will always be back to back with something.

I can’t imagine being able to juggle revising Bradley Schuster and writing a new novel at the same time. I know, I’ve been editing one book while writing another for several novels now. But it’s going to need my undivided attention, at least for a while.

And then the final straw: I just finished the second pass of edits on Strange Bedfellows with my editor.

I hate editing.

Good thing I love it.

ps: if your retirement account needs a little boost, buy some stock in a company that makes red ink.

edited page 2