Friday, December 18, 2009

The High Holidays

Christmas has always been my second favorite holiday. My first is the 4th of July. I chose it because I love summer, the Lake, and barbeque. And fireworks. The thing the two have in common, the reason they both hold a special place in my heart, is family. Though I haven't been able to put my finger on exactly why, I just can't work up any holiday cheer this year. I've pretty much only bought the presents that had to be shipped. I don't have a tree. I did decorate the house but the last two nights I haven't even turned the outside lights on. I've been thinking hard about what is the matter with me.

It's probably a combination of factors. Four years ago all four of my grandparents celebrated with us at my parents house. This year there won't be any. I've lost three in the past three years, and my remaining grandma is spending Christmas in Arizona with my Aunt, Uncle, and cousins. Not that I blame her. If I could, I would fly South for the Winter too. My father's parents died a year apart, both fairly unexpectedly. Or as unexpected as it gets at eighty-nine. I loved them, had just begun to really appreciate them, and I miss them. This past May, though, my mother's father passed. He was that one, the one who was special. The one who makes you feel special and loved, just by being in his presence. He and I have always been close, ever since I was an infant. Losing him is something I still haven't adjusted to. I started crying at a restaurant a few weeks ago because the old man at the next table ordered a tenderloin (one of Gramps' favorites). Gramps was a big man in so many more ways that his physical appearance. He filled up a room with joy, kindness, and laughter. The house at Christmas will be so...quiet.
This year it will be only my parents, my uncle, my sister, my husband, and myself. I've been working hard on getting out of debt and there isn't much to spare this year for presents. Usually I go overboard. I love giving. Watching people open the things I've picked out for them brings me such joy. Especially my mother and father, who have done so much for me over the years. It's impossible to think of paying them back, but I love to try. Part of me doesn't want to go and face that empty house. I know I will, though. Families change, surely everyone goes through years like this sooner or later. To top everything off my best friend (who I've had my entire life) is moving away for the first time. I don't make friends easily, at least not close ones, and I have no idea what I'm going to do without her to escape with. It's hard. I'm making a valiant attempt not to let it ruin Christmas, though.
It's a Wonderful Life is my favorite movie. People always say that's an impossible task, to pick a favorite movie, but not for me. I love the characters, the story, and the moral. This year I feel sort of like George Bailey. Like nothing I've done is good enough, will make enough difference, or means much of anything at all. I'm trying to take on his lesson as my own, and remember that it doesn't matter who I've lost, how much money I have to spend on presents, or whether or not our house is bursting at the seams on Christmas morning. What matters is the lives we've touched and those who've touched us. That we are all better people for the love, family, and friendships we've been given over the whole of our lives. Those are the things, the love, family, friends, and memories that make the hard road forward worth it in the end.

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, dear readers. Here's to 2010...

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Panache Is So Hard to Come By These Days

Jean Lafitte is the ultimate villain. He’s the one I’m always trying to write, the guy who is on the wrong side of the law but remains likable in spite of everything. Hell, maybe he’s the perfect hero. Like somehow, when I watch movies like The Assassination of Jesse James (by the Coward Robert Ford) or Public Enemies, I wind up rooting for the ‘bad guy.’ The thing is when a story is told from the rogue’s point of view, he becomes the hero of the story. At least in those instances. Great films, by the way, especially the first one.

Back to Jean Lafitte. Known as the gentleman pirate of New Orleans, Jean might have been born in France, but referred to himself as a ‘man without a country.’ He had no patience for the French and was drawn to the simplistic idealism of the American Constitution. Some accounts give the reason for his apathy as the beheading of his parents during the French Revolution. At any rate, he and his brother Pierre set up smuggling and pirating operations on an island in Barataria Bay, near New Orleans. Make no mistake, Jean was a pirate. He stole, he killed, he smuggled slaves after their import to the United States was made illegal. For the majority of his career he didn’t actually perform any of these actions, because he had an entire fleet under his command, but I doubt this distinction had any real meaning to law enforcement.

I’m going to share my favorite two Jean Lafitte stories, and from them I believe you’ll garner an accurate picture of the man and the legend. A quick one, in way introducing him. Lafitte’s face was plastered on posters all over New Orleans, all promising a reward of $500 for his capture. Shortly after, posters displaying the Governor’s face went up all over town, pledging $1500 if the man were hogtied and brought to Lafitte’s island. I’d have paid money to see the Governor’s face the first time he laid eyes on one of those puppies.

The first may be legend, but it’s a good one. Supposedly, Jean Lafitte and Napoleon Bonaparte were related, perhaps distant cousins. When the latter learned of his impending exile, he hired Lafitte to smuggle him out of France and to America. Napoleon loaded his belongings up on Lafitte’s ship, and then went out to enjoy his last night in France. He either didn’t make it back by the appointed hour or Lafitte outright took off with his things, but either way he never took that boat to America. Good thing for us too, I’d say. It makes me giggle to think how shocked Napoleon must have been, wandering up and down those docks thinking “how could he?” It reminds me of a scene from Pirates of the Caribbean, when the still-green William Turner is fencing with Jack Sparrow, who disarms him. Will looks at Jack with a wounded, indignant face and says: “You cheated.” Sparrow’s response, with a quick motion to himself: “Pirate.” Duh, Will. All I’m saying is that if I’ve left all of my worldly possessions on the ship of a known pirate there’s no way in hell I’m going anywhere. In fact, I’d probably tie myself down.

Second, Jean Lafitte and several of his pirates lent their services to Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans. By all accounts, this battle would have been lost without their help. Ignoring the elephant in the room, which is that the war was over before this particular skirmish took place, Lafitte did the American government a solid. He did it for two reasons, both of which were selfish. He was a pirate, remember? First, he was French. His genes were coded with English-hating DNA. Second, he and his men were promised a presidential pardon. After the end of the war, Lafitte traveled all the way to Washington DC to request goods and materials that were confiscated from his stronghold by the government. After all, he had supplied men, funds, weapons, and his knowledge of the land to help the US win an important victory. What Madison told him? You can buy it back at auction. Needless to say, Lafitte was miffed over the encounter and never regained his previous admiration of America. Lafitte wanted, badly by some accounts, to be viewed as a businessman and gentleman, as opposed to a criminal. That he felt he had the right to demand his things from the President bolsters this image in my mind.

So what we have here is a man without a country, without a family besides his brother, who does what he has to survive but longs to be part of gentle society. Charming, isn’t he? Identifiable? His plight, when put that way, makes you root for him. In the end, Lafitte and his men were run out of New Orleans and settled in Galveston for a time before sailing south, never to be seen again. I encourage you to read more about Lafitte, there are many amusing stories that I have not the time or knowledge to relay. I dare you not to adore him, at least in some small way, before you are finished.

Next Up - Anne Bonny. Let's here it for the girls!

Friday, November 13, 2009

Pirates - The Ultimate Bad Boys?

            Pirates. Why do we love them so? What makes them so dashing, so romantic, so worthy of admiration? Because historically, our predecessors didn’t see any of the above characteristics in the rogues. They were terrorists, thieves, murderers…criminals to be feared and avoided at all costs. We can blame Johnny Depp, or Disney. I think it’s something more, something engrained in our souls that makes us love them.

            One of my favorite pirate story dates to 75 B.C.E. and involves a man who would one day change the face of the Roman Republic. When Julius Caesar was a young man, still in his early twenties, the pirates of Cilicia captured him and held him for ransom. The Cilician pirates achieved infamy during their heyday, causing trouble for Rome and all of her commercial partners around the Mediterranean. The Romans used the same pirates as mercenaries during maritime warfare, a tradition that did not end with them. The pirates ransomed young Caesar for twenty talents, a paltry amount that made him laugh when he found out. See, Julius informed the pirates they had netted a prize and he believed himself worth much more. As a result, they asked for fifty talents in exchange for the aristocrat’s release. While in their custody, for a length of a month or so, Julius Caesar acted more as their leader as opposed to a captive. He often practiced fighting with them, learned their weaponry and tactics, and sent messengers to ask them to keep their voices down when he wanted to sleep. He talked every day of how they had better not let him go, because if they did he would come back with an army and kill every last one of them. The pirates, believing it to be a friendly joke, laughed along. When they released him, Julius went to the nearest town, raised his army, and returned to slaughter the band of pirates who’d held him. He granted the ones he liked a death by beheading as opposed to crucifixion, Caesar’s brand of mercy. The moral of this particular story is two-fold, in my opinion. First, it provides an intimate picture of piracy; the camaraderie, society, and inner workings of their groupings. Second, it reiterates what history teaches us about the Romans – don’t mess with them. They were like, the Texas of their day.
            As long as people have shipped goods across the seas, men have made their living stealing from them. All the powerful, successful countries (including America) have used the pirates when it’s convenient and punished them harshly when they lose their usefulness. The life of a pirate was hard, the men who chose it rarely living past their twenties. They signed on knowing their time on this earth would be short, so they lived it to the fullest extent. Kind of like college, only at the end you die. Their indulgences contributed to their early demise just as often as the sword, cannon, or rope. The weeks at sea without proper nutrition caused health issues such as scurvy and other vitamin deficiencies. The time spent at port, drinking and whoring, led to every sort of venereal disease, driving many a pirate to an early grave. Without the inclination or opportunity to bathe regularly, scabies and other skin disease took their toll.
            I just made it sound awfully glamorous, didn’t I? Still want to be a pirate? For some reason, I sort of do. And you know what I think it is? The freedom. The chance to travel the world, to give the finger to society and its rules, to live or die on your own terms. The killing people would be hard for me, I’m not very confrontational by nature, but if I looked down the barrel of a naval officer, I might be able to summon some fight. Two of my novels feature pirates and their histories as integral characters, and I plan on sharing their stories in the days to come. If the lives of these scalawags, thieves, and entrepreneurs fascinate you as they do me, drop back by. I promise to keep it interesting.

NEXT TIME: Jean Lafitte, Gentleman pirate of New Orleans

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Tacking on That Tough Skin

A week ago I took the next step in my writing journey. Through Twitter, I met some ladies who are part of a writing group that meets locally. I considered joining one before, even searched online, but hadn’t located one I thought would suit my needs. Or perhaps I wasn’t ready. Either way, this time when they invited me to come so we could check each other out, I committed.
            I tried not to think about things too much. I finished my current round of edits, printed my manuscript, query letter, and synopsis, and baked some killer pumpkin cookies with cream cheese icing (when in doubt, sweets never hurt, in my experience). Suddenly the evening arrived, and after a long day in hell…oops, I mean at my day job, I gathered the bits of my soul and set off into the unknown.
            I met everyone, and they seemed nice. We ate some minestrone soup and chatted about our goals and where we are currently, then got down to business. Since I’m the newbie, and they were sort of auditioning me, I went first. Let me say, I’ve never given my writing to anyone I didn’t know, except for college professors. The people who’ve read my novel liked it, but their opinions are colored by things like being related to me.
            I had been nervous before going, complained to my husband and my best friend about it. They tried to calm my nerves but, not being artists, they struggled to grasp the reason for my fears. Now, as I prepared to read Chapter One in a novel I’d been revising for months, my hands shook like a heroin addict two days sober, a fact I hoped they would attribute it to the coffee. My throat was dry and after the first few sentences the words stuck to my tonsils and had to be scraped off. I took off my cardigan in an attempt stem the flow of underarm sweat that threatened to bleed through my shirt. After reading about ten pages, then held my breath.
            They had nice things to say, assuring me that my writing wasn’t total crap, that my stories were worth telling. They also had some excellent advice on craft, an admitted weakness of mine and an area I am intent on improving. Their advice was sound, kind, intelligent, and timely. Two things amazed me. First, I didn’t die from embarrassment or anxiety. Second, they instantly put their finger on the problem I have struggled with for months. They only listened to ten pages, and were able to tell me how to make my beloved story work better. This is a subject for another blog, but reading and critiquing others can also immensely improve your own work. Turning your eye a different direction, looking for holes and craft issues instead of worrying about your story, benefits everyone.
            As artists, we are naturally sensitive people who crave rave reviews and positive reinforcement. It’s part of our makeup. Nathan Bransford blogged about it this week, it’s a good post that stirred up a hornet’s nest of comments. We want to defend our work, because as we write, little pieces of our souls break off and mix in with the prose. It’s hard when people stamp on them. If we don’t put our work out there for others, though, how will we improve? Art is inherently subjective. I love movies that make my husband want to claw his eyes out. I’ve seen art hanging in people’s homes that inspires me to vomit in their decorative urns. Different things appeal to different audiences. Everyone isn't going to love your writing. It will be enough if you can reach the people who do.
            So I challenge you, writerly people, to be brave and charge ahead. Let others help you improve, help you arrive at the point of reaching your audience. I hope I’m on my way, and I’m pleased as punch to have found a group of women whose opinions I respect. Go, find yours. You write a novel on your own, and it’s an intense, personal experience. Polishing that novel takes a village, just like raising a child.

Monday, October 5, 2009

"I have made but one mistake."

In relationships, timing is everything. At least, that’s what they say. It’s probably true. Just ask Berenice. In hindsight, falling in love with the Roman general (soon-to-be Emperor) just after he sacked your country and killed close to a million of your people was probably not the best idea.  But since when has that had anything to do with love?
            The Romans were the victors in 70 C.E. As the ones left standing, it was their job to write down what happened. Unfortunately, what that means is only their versions of events remain. Several contemporaries of Titus and Berenice told the story of their affair. None of them referred to it as ‘love.’ The Jews were not in vogue, given the fact they had just instigated a lengthy and expensive war. As I stated previously, the Herods weren’t exactly Jews, but they weren’t exactly Romans either. Berenice actually gave large sums of money and threw around a substantial amount of influence to get Vespasian the job of Emperor. Her motivations were questioned and good will turned against her in the months and years to come.
            You might remember a woman named Cleopatra. According to Roman history, Cleopatra was a deceitful, conniving, power hungry, foreign woman whose female wiles nearly destroyed the moral fiber of Rome forever. Sound exaggerated? It always has to me. Disease, pirates, bandits, inbreeding, internal power struggles, and hundreds of armies were no match for the solid foundations of Rome, but one woman…she was going to ruin everything? It may sound silly, but the Romans in 70 C.E. were weaned on those stories of Cleopatra, and they harbored an inherent and intense dislike of foreign (especially Eastern) women. The attitude spilled over to Berenice.
            Shortly after Titus returned to Rome, Berenice and her brother followed. She lived with Titus in the Emperor’s palace, and by all accounts acted as his wife in every way. Cassius Dio (Roman History, LXV) even goes so far as to say she had been promised marriage by 75 C.E.  Several writers (aka, historians) of the time noted their relationship, and all agree it dissolved when Titus caved to political pressure and sent her away. Berenice returned one more time, perhaps at his request, when he assumed the throne after the death of his father in 79 C.E. She stayed only a few short months before he was again forced to send her back to Judea. His image and his effectiveness suffered due to her presence, forcing his hand.
Berenice was unpopular for all the same reasons as Cleopatra. In addition to long standing rumors she and her brother practiced an incestuous relationship, she was cast in the role of the power hungry woman who would stop at nothing to marry Titus and rule over Rome. Politicians, playwrights, philosophers, and cynics publicly slandered her character. It would have been nearly impossible for Titus and to recover and polish her image. Titus died unexpectedly in 81 C.E. after ruling for only two years. He is remembered, along with his father, as one of the most well liked Emperors in Rome’s history. His short two-year rule was dotted with major events. The eruption of Mount Vesuvius and destruction of Pompeii. A massive fire burned a large portion of the city, including important landmarks. He completed and opened the Coliseum, a project begun by Vespasian. He did his best, stayed cool in the face of adversity, put the people first, and knew how to kick back and relax. Berenice disappeared from the historical record after Titus dismissed her for the last time.
There is absolutely nothing to suggest Berenice was after Titus for any reason other than love. There is also nothing to suggest she wasn’t after him for his power and influence, like the Romans believed. Precious little information remains regarding Berenice at all. She was powerful in her own right, a fact attested to by her contemporaries. That a woman was mentioned in official record at all (especially by the always misogynistic Paul) is proof she was both influential and respected. So were the (all male) historians leery of her because she was a beautiful, powerful woman, or were their suspicions founded in fact? As a female, I know one thing. For all his admirable traits, Titus was the last man in the world Berenice should have fallen for. Historically, she was devoted to her people, and loving him was an egregious betrayal. Also, being rejected not once, but twice, smacks of real love. Especially for a proud and powerful woman used to having her own way. She had plenty of money, comforts, and influence in Judea. I just can’t see her going to him a second time for any other reason than actually needing to be by his side. Maybe I’m wrong. I’m not a power-money-prestige hungry woman myself, so perhaps you think I just don’t understand her. For some reason, though, I have always felt as though I do.
Titus’ last words were allegedly, “I have made but one mistake.” The historians (all men, remember?) believed he regretted allowing his younger brother to live after an ill-conceived assassination attempt. The romantic in me, the woman in me, wants to believe he referred to Berenice. That the only regret he had was giving in to the pressure, for choosing his country over true love. He wasn’t the first person to do so. He certainly wasn’t the last, either. After all, his actions seem to point toward real feelings as well. He knew how his advisors and the public felt about her. Why ask her to come back a second time? For what other reason than he needed her, missed her? It’s the never-gets-old-ill-fated-lovers tale. Romeo and Juliet. Heathcliff and Catherine. More recently, Edward and Bella (except they got the happy ending). Why does that story never get old? My guess is because most people can relate to it. If timing is everything, most of us have experienced a relationship that would have been amazing…five years earlier. Ten years later. If he wasn’t the Emperor of Rome. If he wasn’t undead. If his family didn’t hate mine. If he wasn’t a dense asshole (oops, how did that one get in there?).
I love the story of Titus and Berenice because it’s real. Even through the gauzy curtain dotted with sparse details, I can feel their pain. I believe it was real, their love. I can’t wait to keep writing so more people will know them and feel the exquisite anguish that must have been theirs. For poor Titus, whom I have always liked, but mostly for Berenice. After all, she’s had her mouth sewn shut on the subject for two thousand years. I can’t wait to rip those ugly black stitches out of her lips and give her a voice, a story, and the chance to finally tell her side.

(Look for a peek at my version of Titus and Berenice's beginnings in my next post)

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Setting the Stage

           While deeply immersed in piles of research, I am overcome with resentment. Armed with my fury at the unfairness of it all, I scribbled down a defense of Berenice, a woman who is a historical character as well as one of the main characters in the novel I am currently writing. Since it is a subject I am passionate about, my scribbles went on for ages, and the piece refuses to fit into a proper blog-length. So I decided to break it into chunks, using this one to set the historical stage for my upcoming rabid, vociferous, defense of Berenice’s character.
            69 C.E. – Rome is engaged in a war with the Jews. It is not the first, or the last, but it will be the most bloody. A man called Vespasian is the general in charge, and is slowly fighting his way through Judea to the capital, Jerusalem. Back in Rome, the elite families that have been ruling for centuries, the Julio-Claudians, have run out of legitimate heirs. This leaves the job of Emperor up for grabs and the city in an uproar.
            Vespasian is from a family called the Flavians, part of the ‘new’ elite, one of many ‘common’ families that have risen in power and influence over the past four generations. The elite class is in desperate need of unpolluted blood, and families like the Flavians are going to be the answer. 69 C.E. will be known as the ‘Year of the Four Emperors,’ as different generals and their armies to attempt coup after coup. In the end, Vespasian is the one left standing, and he travels from the front in Jerusalem back to Rome in late 69 to assume power. He leaves his eldest son, Titus, in charge of finishing what he has begun.
            The rulers of Judea, appointed by Rome, are the Herodians. In 69 C.E., the King is Agrippa II, great-grandson of Herod the Great. He is not married, and he and his sister Berenice rule equally as King and Queen. This fact is attested to by numerous writers, including New Testament writer Paul. The Herodians were not terribly popular among the Jewish people because of their close association with the Romans. Both Berenice and Agrippa cared deeply for their people, however, and tried without success to get them to relent in their opposition of Rome. There were too many zealots, too many who urged their countrymen to fight, to not pay taxes, to never give in. On one occasion Berenice nearly lost her life to a mob outside of Jerusalem when she traveled there to try and speak out against the violence and rebellion.
            70 C.E. - No one could influence the Jews to stop in their fight against their perceived oppressors and occupiers and they went to war with Rome. Which, as we all know, is an ill-advised course of action. Titus stopped the import of food into Jerusalem, starving the millions trapped inside the walled city during Passover. When his army finally attacked, the people were weak. The Romans, fired up from days of waiting, let the bloodlust take over and killed approximately a million men, women, and children in a few hours. Berenice cropped her hair and dressed as though in mourning while she watched the wholesale slaughter of her countrymen.
            The Jewish Temple was considered one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Allegedly, Titus gave orders that the Temple be left intact, but lost control of his men and it too was destroyed in the heat of the moment. The war was over in a matter of days, both the city and the spirit of its people temporarily disabled. Titus swept through Judea, enjoying his spoils and annihilating smaller pockets of resistance before returning to Rome in triumph.
            My work in progress takes place partially during these years, and both Titus and Berenice are integral characters in my story. Sometime, somehow, during this year of upheaval, blood, death, and betrayal, Titus and Berenice managed to fall in love with each other. In my next post I will explore both the facts and popular gossip surrounding their affair, as well as the possibility that love can overcome us, even in a time of unimaginable hate.
(Photo is a bust of Titus)

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Sheldon the Sex Machine?

           I used to think it was weird when people choose not to decide on a baby name until after the birth. The typical reason? We want to see what the little bundle looks like! What if you decide on something edgy, like Brandt, and the little guy looks conservative. More like a Charles, maybe. What if you name your daughter something demure, like Jane, and she looks like a party animal. Perhaps you would be better served going with Britney or Jenna. Although I understand this way of thought, it’s not something I ascribe to. I am of the opposite belief. That our children (or characters) will grow to embody the names we give them.
            My characters often have faces and personalities when they arrive in the conscious mind, but they are always nameless. It never takes long, however, for me to try a few on for size and see what fits. Often I choose a name I have always liked, maybe one from my baby name list that hubby has assured me I will never get to name our child (should we ever have one). Sometimes I name them after family, friends, or professional acquaintances. I’ll admit that sometimes I name villains variations of people I can’t stand. Watch out, cop who gave me two tickets last summer. You know who you are. No matter how they are blessed with their names, my characters always seem to find a way to make it fit. The main character in my first novel is a history professor who survived an abusive, lonely childhood. She prefers to bury herself in her work and blocks out the world. She’s a perfect Eleanor.
            Since I have leapt into the madness that is Twitter, created this blog, and spent hours on end reading other industry blogs, I notice how much valuable is spent kicking around potential character names. Then I realize I don’t spend much time at all, and start to wonder if I’m missing something. The hardest time I had naming characters came in my most recent manuscript, and only because part of it takes place in Bangladesh and Thailand. Even then, I used the internet (that blessing and curse), went to a website of the most popular baby names by country, and picked some out.
When I started researching for this post, I found a multitude of articles on naming characters, on how important it is, and how we writers should be careful about any influence a characters name would have on our readers. Symbolism is tricky, I think. I avoid it, because it’s too easy to come across as cheesy. For example, an angelic character named Gabriel. A druggie named Mary Jane. Your writing should make us understand the character’s personality, I think using their name to do so can be a cop out. Some things are obvious. If we have a lovable protagonist, his name should not be any of the following: Osama, Adolf, or Barney. An exotic, interesting lover? Probably not a Ned or a Fred. Which leads me to quote one of the best movies ever, When Harry Met Sally. You want to write good dialogue? Read this script. Or anything written by Nora Ephron or Rob Reiner.
Harry: “Shel? Sheldon? No, you did not have great sex with Sheldon.”
Sally:  “I did too.”
Harry: “No. A Sheldon can do your income taxes. You need a root canal, Sheldon’s your man.     But humpin’ and pumpin is not Sheldon’s strong suit. It’s the name. Do it to me Sheldon. You’re an animal Sheldon. Ride me big…Sheldon. It doesn’t work.”
You get the idea, and I think it’s something we all realize as readers. My biggest goal is to not have my characters names detract from the story. I want my main characters to be likable and identifiable, but I want my story to be remembered. This leads me to my question. How much time do you spend, writer friends, coming up with character names? Do you put much thought into them, or do they just fit together naturally, like mine do? Do you try to come up with something different, something memorable, or just something that won’t stand out and distract from your story? Lastly, how important do you think a characters name is to the ultimate success of your story? Looking forward to the discussion, as always!


Tuesday, September 15, 2009

America's US Open Report Card - Fail.

The media coverage of this years US Open tennis tournament was as atrocious and nationalistic as I’ve ever seen. Granted, I’ve only been following tennis closely for about three years, but during that time I have watched pretty much every minute of every Grand Slam that I can get my hands on in America. Even setting aside the usual headaches of trying to find tennis matches in real time, this year's tournament was home to many egregious faults.
            First, Dinara Safina. Now, I know many people don’t care for her because of her emotional fragility and her tendency to blame her troubles on anything but herself, but let’s be fair. Whether you agree with the ranking system or not, the girl is the number one women’s player on the tour. And she has been for some time. She earned it. At the end of the first week of the tournament, Dinara Safina (remember, number one in the world) was moved off the main court. For whom, you might ask, was she bumped? Roger Federer? Rafa Nadal? Even perhaps Andy Roddick or Serena Williams? No. James Blake (24) vs. Tommy Robredo (16). Yes, men’s matches typically draw a larger crowd than women’s. Yes, James Blake is an American. Does that excuse what was done? I don’t think so. Would this have happened in Australia, Paris, or at Wimbledon? Never. Never in a million years. She had the right to voice a complaint. Our media ridicules her for stating that she feels disrespected. Fail.
            Next, Melanie Oudin. Up front, let me say I love watching this kid as much as the next person. I’m happy American tennis has something to look forward to. After this US Open, you would be hard pressed to find anyone who doesn’t know who she is. Which is great. She deserves it and I’m happy for her. My question is this: will anyone remember Yanina Wickmayer? Wickmayer began the tournament ranked number 50. Oudin began at 70. Each made it into the second week, an unexpected feat. Oudin couldn’t change hotels without it being a major news story. I still don’t know what country Wickmayer is from. What is the big difference between them? What makes Melanie Oudin worthy of a media feeding frenzy? There’s only one answer, and it’s simple. She’s American. There was a moment, at the end of the quarterfinal match in which Caroline Wozniacki beat Melanie Oudin, where I was so proud of my countrymen (and women). The on-court reporter asked the following question: What do you think of your chances in your next match, I mean you’re playing Wickmayer…(crowd boos, reporter asks “What did I say?”) It wasn’t what she said but how she said Wickmayer. She might as well of called her a gnat or something equally insignificant. Like she couldn’t even believe she was saying Wickmayer had made it to the semifinal. After we just spent a week expounding on the potential greatness of Oudin. More disrespect for a non-American.  They said the word “Belgian” repeatedly in a similar tone…as if they really meant ‘cockroach’ or ‘leper.’ Fail, part two.
            Third, if Caroline (not Carolyn, genius announcers…jeesh, it’s not even a difficult name) Wozniacki has managed to retain any shred of respect for America after her two weeks here, I would be surprised. Because I wouldn’t have, if I were her. The first problem was the on-court interview mentioned above. Caroline Wozniacki was making her first appearance in the quarterfinals, which means (of course) she had just made it through to her first ever semifinal. We interviewed Melanie Oudin first. On the court. While Wozniacki waited. She took it in stride, with a beautiful smile. The second insult came during her semifinal (the first one ever, remember?). Because of weather delays, only about 300 fans watched her and that other girl…oh yeah, it was Wickmayer again…as she made it to her first Grand Slam final. Which makes those 300 people extremely special, since no one watching TV saw one minute of that match. Not. One. Minute. We didn’t see them play, we didn’t see her win, no one interviewed her on-court, and the press conference wasn’t aired until the next day. I got the feeling that poor Caroline was standing victorious on the other court, waiting for a reporter that never came. Instead we watched Serena do terribly important things like talk to Venus outside the locker room, walk to and from her press conference, and lose her temper on court for the twentieth time in half an hour. Fail, part tres.
            Okay, Serena lost her cool (an understatement, I realize) on court and ended up losing her match as a result. We all saw it live, and it was obviously inappropriate behavior for which she deserved to be ejected from the match. In my opinion, she needs to miss out on next years Grand Slams as well. $10K (the amount of her fine) is a slow day’s income for her. CBS must have replayed the footage twenty times in the next hour. When they weren’t replaying the footage, they were talking about what happened and stalking Serena around the grounds. A fair amount of time was also spent cleaning up the audio from the court so we could all hear clearly that Serena both cursed at and threatened the (admittedly incorrect) line judge. I didn’t need them to verify that for me. They wouldn’t have charged her a point penalty unless she deserved it. I’m sure there was nothing better they could have been spending their time on. Like another semifinal or an interview with Caroline Wozniacki. It makes much more sense to focus on negative, inappropriate behavior rather than interview an always smiling, classy nineteen year old girl who just made her first semifinal. I totally get it. Right.
            Last, but not least, the post-final interviews. Caroline Wozniacki (bet you won’t forget her name now, huh), after acknowledging that she is the first professional tennis player from Denmark to make a Grand Slam final, asked to say a few words in Danish. Hesitation. Okay. Then she asked to say a few words in Polish. Longer hesitation in which Wozniacki grabbed the mic and started talking. After winning the following day, Juan Martin Del Potro asked to say a few words in Spanish. Because he’s from Argentina. Where people are watching who speak Spanish. He was given a reluctant go-ahead and advised to keep it short. Are you kidding me? He just won his first major title, he beat Roger Federer, let him do whatever he wants! Fail, fail, fail.
I cannot imagine even one of these incidents taking place anywhere but on American soil. If CBS is going to steal coverage from the Tennis Channel, or even ESPN, they are going to have to learn something about professional tennis as well as it's fans. It’s not all about America. Typically it's very little about America, since our players (with a few exceptions: V. Williams, S. Williams, and A. Roddick) very rarely make the news in tennis world. People who watch tennis want to see the best players, the best matches. Do I like to see Americans win? Of course. Do I enjoy watching Federer, Nadal, Azarenka, Demetieva, and many other non-Americans play? Sure. In fact, those are some of my favorite players. Coverage like we experienced the past two weeks illustrates why our country is disliked by so many. Professional sports, especially those that are inherently international, have no room for the kind of bias that was displayed by our reporters and tournament directors. It will get us nowhere. The media has a responsibility to become better ambassadors for our country, and of good will in general. If not, perhaps I will follow Roger Federer back to Switzerland. Better to be annoyingly neutral than outrageously prejudiced.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

5 Reasons to Love the Ancient Romans

               I have spent the past few years working on a M.A. in Ancient History. I love all history, pretty much, but Ancient Rome has always held a special place in my heart. I love it so much I willingly sat through twenty hours of Latin in order to emphasize in the field. I have to admit, as a language lover, Latin is interesting. As a quick aside, here’s a little tip from me to you. The BEST week of television is the week before Halloween on the Travel Channel. If Haunted Travels Week doesn’t increase your love for the past and its amazing stories then I don’t know what will. You’re welcome.
            Both of my completed (meaning written, not perfected) novels, as well as my work in progress, devote a large number of pages to historical events and characters. Those who have been forced to read my drafts have been unanimous in their belief that the historical flashbacks are the best parts of my story. There’s a reason for that. It’s the easiest thing to write, at least for me. These people lived rich, full, colorful lives. If they hadn’t, we wouldn’t remember them. Their lives and personalities provide my characters with built-in hopes, dreams, and motivations. It also doesn’t hurt to know their futures ahead of time. Hindsight is enlightening.
            Now, I hear there are people out there who hate history. I’m not sure who those people are but it’s my guess that they don’t have souls. Since this is my blog, I’m going to take some time to expound on the awesomeness that was the Ancient Romans. If you don’t like history, now is the time to leave. If you do, stick around and you just might learn something. Here are 5 (there are so many more) reasons to love the Ancient Romans:
            1 – They understood the importance of running water. Seriously, how amazing it that? The majority of middle and upper class urban homes had running water, including toilets. The government paid for public toilets, baths, and drinking water for everyone else. They built aqueducts (which sound boring, until you understand what they went through to build them), huge structures that sloped downward centimeters at a time and spanned miles and miles and delivered fresh water from mountain springs, rivers, etc. into the cities. Bye-bye scary, waterborne illness! So long, hygiene related diseases! Hello, homes and towns that don’t smell like urine and feces. This is why I never understood how historians could be fascinated with the Middle Ages. Those people were ass backwards. They took a society brimming with culture and every creature comfort imaginable and within a hundred years reduced themselves to the point where humans were shitting in holes dug in the ground. WTF.
            2 – Their practical approach to problem solving.  For every problem, there was a solution. It was usually simple. Sometimes it involved busting heads and kicking ass, but it had to be done. They were running and Empire, not a daycare. They needed a large army to support their expanding borders? Require military service. Jewish people won’t behave even after being allowed religious concessions? Burn down their city. Still won’t comply? Kick them out of Jerusalem. For good measure, rename area Palestine. Christianity overrunning the Empire? Embrace it. Incorporate existing religious festivals/holidays into Christian calendar to make things easier. Oh yeah, and take over the church. Centuries of inbreeding hampering likelihood of sane leadership? Start ‘adopting’ military men who have proven their leadership skills into royal families, groom them to become Emperor. Last and my favorite. Upper class houses were all designed containing a room called the vomitorium. It’s exactly what you think it is. The Ancient Romans threw kick ass parties, which more often than not included all types of sex, drugs, drinking, and awesome food. They didn’t want to have to quit when they were full/drunk, so what’s the logical fix for that one? You guessed it. Run to the vomitorium, throw up, and start over. Just like college. (Note: This is a disputed fact. Some historians don’t believe the vomitoria were used for this purpose, as they also existed in theatres where people ‘spewed out’ after the show. Whatever.)
            3 – They had their own gossip rag.  I was writing a paper about my favorite Roman Emperor (yeah, I have a favorite Emperor, so what?) when I ran across a book called The Twelve Caesars. In it, a man named Suetonius recounts the lives of the first twelve rulers of the Roman Empire. He begins with Julius, even though he wasn’t technically and Emperor. He did get the ball rolling in the area of narcissism, though, so well done Julius. The book is amazing. It recounts all the partying, temper tantrums, Oedipus complexes, and sexual preferences (usually for both sexes) of each Roman ruler. It’s juicier than anything sitting in your supermarket checkout line, I promise. He does extol the high points of each with regards to their policy, as well. It’s worth reading, even if you don’t have papers to write or favorite Emperors to pick.
            4 – Their willingness to learn from others. For all their blustering superiority, the Romans did not believe that they had all the answers. They nurtured a healthy respect for the most ancient societies, and treasured their languages, religions, and traditions. They borrowed an immense amount of culture from the Ancient Greeks. The Roman pantheon of Gods were simply borrowed from the Greeks and renamed. They did add one or two along the way, but the majority of their religion came directly from the Greeks. They did this for two reasons: first, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ is a phrase I’m still looking for in Latin. It could have been the Roman’s motto, so I know it must be there. Second, when the Romans began their conquest of the known world, said world was Hellenized by years of Greek rule. It would have been too hard to change people’s religion and culture entirely. The elite Roman families also recognized the fact that Greek philosophy, language, and education were established and more superior to their own. No one of noble birth was educated in Rome. The upper classes spoke Greek as opposed to Latin. Latin was a ‘vulgar’ language. In Latin, vulgar simply means ‘common.’  The Romans borrowed many aspects of their society from many people they conquered. That’s what made them the best. They combined the best practices from around the world into one society.
            5 – Their tolerance, especially of other religions. Some people might think that sounds funny. Overall, the word tolerance isn’t what comes to mind when one thinks of the Romans. I am here to argue against that mindset. The bottom line for the Romans was this: If you aren’t messing with the stability of our government, it’s cool. Truly. The Romans allowed the worship of pretty much every other god or goddess in existence. The only rule was that you also had to sacrifice and pay homage to the Emperor as a god as well. No problem for most first century people, since they were pagans and believed in multiple gods. The more the merrier. The more you sacrificed to, the better chance of hitting on one who was in the mood to help you out. The Romans even made an exception to this rule for the Jews. Though they didn’t understand the concept of one God, they automatically respected Judaism because of how old it was, and gave the Jewish people a lot of latitude. They even agreed that they didn’t have to worship the Emperor. The only cults they ousted were those ‘corrupting society.’ It not only made their population happier, but also made it extremely easy to integrate newly conquered people into their ranks. The Christians ran afoul of the Roman government because the religion threatened to completely undermine the way society functioned. By insisting that only one God existed and that he did not require sacrifices, the people of the Empire would suffer. Businesses selling animals, amulets, and other religious items would suffer. The commerce surrounding the coliseums and their games would suffer. The very foundation of society, the election of senators, was tied up with omens from the gods. The temples in the cities were major sources of revenue and religion was a tool to control the masses. They didn’t have a problem with the Christians. Like I said, pretty much any god you wanted to believe in was fine. They had a problem with the threat to their way of life. Understandably. In the end, they figured out a way to make it work in their favor. How very Roman of them.
            My current work in progress takes places partially in first century Rome and centers around Titus, the second of the Flavian Emperors, (yup, he’s the one!) and his tragic love story. Titus was the Roman general who conquered Jerusalem the final time, when the temple was burned to the ground. Sadly, he fell in love with the Jewish princess, Berenice. Though she felt the same, it was, for obvious reasons, not to be. It’s a great story, and one I am excited to tell. My point being, even if you are not a historical author you should read history. There are so many stories, so many characters waiting to have their stories told. They are free, they are interesting, and because they are true they resonate with readers. What are you waiting for?

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Say Congratulations and Mean It, Dammit!

        Yesterday morning one of my new Twitter friends shared excitement over an agent requesting to read his manuscript. Since I have been advised that it would behoove me to display socially acceptable behavior, I attempted an appropriate response.
 “Wow, that’s great! Congratulations!”
I caught the evil, socially unacceptable voice in my head adding the words,
“Whatever. A-hole.” 
She (of course it’s a she!) was jealous that it wasn’t us who received that request. Lord knows we’ve been trying for a while. That knee jerk, unintentional reaction made me stop and ponder what percentage of the congratulations, that’s great’s, and good for you’s, I force out of my mouth knowing they are complete hogwash. Several examples immediately jumped to mind.
1- Several of my friends are unmarried and have no children. Most of them are pretty anxious, a fact that is exacerbated by our age (30, yikes!) and pretty much everyone we know being married and having children. I often wonder how said friends manage to congratulate these people without warily eyeing the sky for lightning bolts or choking on their tongues.
            2-I have a good friend who gets to travel the globe for weeks on end every summer. Australia, New Zealand, the Mediterranean, France. China…you name it, she’s been there. Looking at her pictures every summer makes the evil voice in my head go bonkers. Still, I dutifully pretend to belong in mainstream society and manage a few nice comments on Facebook. I am dying to be able to travel. She also has a full time job she actually enjoys. That little part of my brain hates her sometimes. Did I mention these vacations are entirely paid for in exchange for her keeping track of a few high school honor students? Now you hate her too, don’t you? Admit it.
3- I had a long distance relationship summer fling that wouldn’t die in college. While it wasn’t serious, I was under the impression delusion it could be. One day when we were discussing when I could visit he advised me that he “sort of had a girlfriend now.” Again, wanting to be appear normal, I managed a suitable reply. “Really, that’s great. What’s her name? (so I can kick her in the face when I see her…wait, no, not at all normal…bad evil voice)”
            In some situations, maybe it is okay to let the evil, jealous voice have its way. I posit, however, that many situations exist in which you should silence the snarky bitch inside your head. Hold her down and tape her mouth shut if you have to. The reasons for this are:
1-We are connecting with other struggling aspiring writers to hopefully help get one another to the published stage. Knowing that there are actually agents out there requesting/selling manuscripts encourages me. Hmmm, maybe they do actually read submissions. In my head, they all have a huge, red button (like the EASY button in the Staples commercials) that says REJECT ALL. It’s nice to know they don’t. It gives me hope.
            2-What writer doesn’t love to read good books? The more talented authors (as I know many of you are) who get a chance to be published, the more quality novels on the shelves. That’s a bonus for everyone.
            3- I know how hard I work, how much I study, how badly I want success, and how much time I spend writing, editing, and perfecting my work. My fellow twittering writer does to. He deserves the chance to have it read, and perhaps accepted. I shouldn’t begrudge him that. He earned it. After months of exploring the publishing industry I understand that no author get’s an agent or a book deal they haven’t earned with great writing, a great story, pounding the pavement, and more than a little bit of luck.
            I’m not going to feed you any bullshit like “God must have an even greater plan for you”, “it’s just not meant to be,” or the always popular “your time is coming.” I have no way of knowing whether it’s true. Maybe our time will never come and our novels will never get published. I submit the humble idea that maybe it doesn’t matter. As I’ve said, I write because I have to, not because I expect to ever be able to make a living out of it. Not that I don’t hope/pray/fantasize daily that this dream will come to fruition. But even if some know-it-all agent advised me tomorrow that my writing was terrible and I would never, ever sell a book to anyone as long as we both shall live, I would still write my stories.
 I’m thinking that perhaps our fellow authors’ successes can feel as good as our own. I’m willing to give it a try. After all, living vicariously is the only option I have right now. When it comes to the other writers you know, both in real life and online, I urge you to join in my quest to stay positive and encouraging. I challenge you (and me!) to try this: Support them. Be happy for them. Take pride in their accomplishments. After all, networking and community is why we are all here to begin with. I hear it takes a village to raise a child publish a successful book.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

So You Want To Be Published

      Yeah, me too. I finished my first novel, La Dame D'Or, about eight months ago. I started poking around the internet, trying to find out what to do next. I hope this post saves someone time, someone who is sticking a toe in the water like I was. Am. Because I am still learning.

     There is such an immense amount of information on the web about how to get a literary agent, how to get your book published, how to write query letters, a synopsis, etc. Don't believe me? Google any one of those phrases and you could spend the next month sifting through the information. Much of it is conflicting. There are a thousand ways, it seems, to write a query. What I want to do is share some of my own experience and offer links to some of the sites I have found most helpful.

1. Put yourself out there. Engage in the whirlwind that is social media. Join Twitter and Facebook. Find other writers like yourself. Find agents and editors and follow them. They often offer up priceless advice for free. Twitter hosts any number of chat sessions for writers to come together and talk with each other. I joined one for the first time last Sunday called #writechat. I got so many ideas for organizing, learned about programs I am not using but probably should be, and found interesting people to follow and learn from. Networking is essential. It has also saved me from thinking I am alone, I am crazy, or that I am a terrible writer and should give up because of the never ending form rejections that keep showing up in my inbox. There are others out there. Find them.

2. There are agents and editors (and in some cases, assistants, who we all know do the hard work) who are willing to help us unpublished folks learn the ins and outs of querying, signing with an agent, and publishing. The first one I stumbled onto was Janet Reid. She works for an agency called Fine Print Lit (who I have queried with no success, btw) and her advice is witty and applicable. On the days she doesn't post anything pertinent, it is still hilarious and will give you a good laugh. She also has another blog called Query Shark, where she reviews submitted queries and tears them apart for the greater good. I know my query improves vastly as I learn from the mistakes of others. I have sent two different versions to her but she hasn't chosen to review them yet. Drat. I am hoping this means they are not filled with enough mistakes to be a valid learning tool for others. I hope it doesn't mean it's boring. Here are a few others that I follow, all of which have helped me learn and made me chuckle. The Rejectionist, Editorial Ass, Rants and Ramblings, The Swivet, and Nathan Bransford. These are just a few. You will find many more.

3. Learn how to write a query letter. Use the Query Shark. This is also a helpful site for many things, including writing queries. Let others critique your query. Trust me, I thought my original version was uh-mazing. It wasn't. When I read it now, I laugh out loud at what a pretentious ass I sound like.

4. Do your research on agents and agencies. Know who likes to read what and who is or isn't accepting new clients. We don't want to waste their time and, more importantly, we don't want to waste our time. I joined a site called Writer's Market for a low monthly membership fee. Lots of benefits, such as agent updates, articles, web seminars, web page suggestions, and a way to track your queries. I have also heard good things about Query Tracker.

5. Develop a thick skin, learning to graciously accept criticism is a requirement in any creative field. It's not easy. Instinct pushes us to explain concepts further, to try and get people to see our point of view. Bottom line, though, is that not everyone will want to see it our way. Not everyone will want to read your book, no matter how great it might be. Ask for critiques from people you trust. Listen to what they say. Join a critique group, either online or in your area. These people will one day, hopefully, be your audience. Their opinions are like gold.

6. Last, but I have learned is most important: DON'T GET DISCOURAGED. Most of us will get rejected many, many times. I let myself feel disappointed for ten minutes when I receive a "no" from an agent and then I get back to work. Maybe I won't sell the first book right away. Maybe I'll sell the second, or the third. Even if I don't, I'll still be writing. All I know is that I was born to be a writer, writing is like breathing and I couldn't stop if I wanted to.

     I hope some of these links are helpful to those who have just decided to take that leap of faith and put themselves and their work out there for others to see. Letting people read what you've written is like letting them into your heart and soul and it's intimidating, to say the least. One last link to one of Janet Reid's posts. I read it every time another rejection makes me feel like I am an idiot for even trying. Keep the link in your favorites. You'll probably need it. Be Brave.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Jumping in With Both Feet

      Hi out there! I have been writing since  I can remember. I have a bachelor's degree in Film, and even with that, all I wanted to do was write the scripts. At least once I found out I couldn't act. I am pursuing a Master's Degree in Ancient History, but teaching doesn't call my name either. Sometime recently, I have realized that writing is the only thing I can see myself doing. In fact, I can't seem to not do it. There are stories and characters in my head that just won't go away. It was when I could no longer make them be silent that I started to test the waters. I wrote a novel, incorporating my adoration of history and it's characters into a contemporary plot. I wrote a query letter and a synopsis after reading what seemed like millions of websites offering helpful advice on how to do so. No positive responses as of yet. Form rejection city. Three revisions of query letter later, I am thinking about sending out another round. I may ask for some help from you first.

     In the meantime I have written another historically focused novel and a memoir. I have gotten some feedback on the first novel and am revising. Which is not too fun, by the way. I am excited about an idea that has been brewing, this time around my area of specialization, Ancient Rome. I spend pretty much all my free time browsing other blogs by agents, editors, assistants (those are the best!), and other authors like myself or on Twitter trying to keep up with the same people. It's exhausting. Sometimes I feel like I could spend all my time reading about how to write instead of writing. I am working on a balance.

     I decided to start a blog mostly because I am a writer and being able to jot down any little thought that comes into my head appeals to me. I have been doing movie/book/television reviews on my husbands social media blog for some time, which has been enjoyable. Also, I wanted to connect with others like me, maybe just starting to get the hang of the process, just starting to get a whiff of how immense the online writing community is and how priceless their advice can be. I'll try and pass along any tidbits that I pick up along the way and hope you will do the same. One day I hope to have advice to offer myself, once I actually convince someone actually in publishing that my work is worth reading. Till next time.