Brocade and Drawlooms

Brocade sampleBefore I learned about yunjin brocade, I’d assumed that my norns in Fate’s Door would weave upon a floor loom, something like the weaver I saw working in historic Williamsburg.

I hadn’t really thought through the process of weaving and the type of weaving necessary to the norns, creating the destiny of the world on their loom.

Floor looms can create beautiful cloth with some wonderful patterns. But the pattern has a limit to its complexity, and that pattern is repeated over and over again.

floor loom diagramThat would never work for the norns. While a larger theme or pattern might repeat through an era of history – the age of classical Greece or the time of republic Rome – the detail within that pattern would vary considerably. And when the world moved on, from ancient times to the Middle Ages, for example, the old pattern would vanish entirely, with a new one springing up.

A floor loom might have an array of heddles (which control the pattern of the weave), but once those heddles were threaded, the pattern for the fabric is unvarying.

My norns would need something more complex than a floor loom.

I read about dobby looms and jacquard looms and even modern power looms, but none of them possessed the kind of flexibility required.

Then I encountered yunjin brocade, woven in Nanjing, China for over 2,000 years. As I studied the textile samples, I saw that the patterns produced were more complex than anything I’d seen thus far.

Dragon robe of the Chinese emperor QianlongMore interesting still were examples of emperor’s robes woven by the piece on the yunjin looms and then assembled from those pieces. They were not cut from the woven silk. Rather each piece was woven to the correct shape and size, ready to be sewn to the other pieces after each came off the loom.

Even more important, the patterns in these pieces changed throughout each piece. The hem of the sleeve might have one pattern, the length of the sleeve another, and the shoulder yet another.

Essentially, an ever-changing tapestry could be created by this ancient and intricate method of weaving.

I had found the loom my norns would weave at.

But, wow, was that loom a monster!

It measured 18 feet long, 4.5 feet wide, 13 feet tall (5.6 meters long, 1.4 meters wide, and 4 meters tall). It takes at least two people to use it. The weaver sits before the loom on a bench, passing the weft threads through the long warp threads. The picker sits aloft, picking different patterns of draw strings to create the openings in the warp threads (called “sheds”) for the weaver to pass the weft threads through.

Yunjin brocade loom

Because the norns must weave a wider cloth – they have the whole world to include – a third person is needed: someone throw the shuttle when a thread must pass the whole width of the cloth. The weaver’s arms are not long enough to both toss the shuttle at one side and catch it at the other.

But the need for three was perfect for my story. The fates – whether they be the Greek moirai or the Roman parcae or the Norse norns – are always three.

I would have my weaver, my patterner (the picker), and my shuttle-catcher.

And it was appropriate that the loom of fate – the loom that wove the births and deaths and deeds of all alive – should be a “monster.” Any device with so much power should have something monstrous about it.

The video below shows a yunjin drawloom in action, as well as explaining some of the other intricacies of the ancient craft of yunjin brocade.

I found it fascinating! (But you probably already knew that I would. 😀 )

For more about the world of Fate’s Door, see:
Cottage of the Norns
The Norns of Fate’s Door
The Baltic Sea
The Ancient Goths
Lugh and the Lunasad
Crossing the Danube
The Keltoi of Európi
Vertical Looms
Names in Ancient Greece

For more about brocade and looms, see:
About Looms
About Brocade
About Yunjin
Saving Yunjin

 

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My Torn Retina

On a Thursday afternoon, I’d just arrived in northern Virginia to attend a memorial service. As I washed my hands in the restroom, I noticed three black dots floating along the upper left field of my vision.

What?

black lace scarf

For a moment I thought I’d moved the scarf of black lace from my neck to my head, and that the fringe of lace on the scarf’s edge had drooped too low. I touched my fingers to my collarbones. No, the scarf was at my neck.

What?

Human eye, cross-sectional view, grayscaleThen I knew. These were floaters: not the filmy gray spots that I’d occasionally experienced before, but more concentrated versions of the same thing. Floaters drift in the vitreous humour, the gel that fills the eye, and cast shadows on the retina, the part of the eye that transmits light signals to the brain.

The fact that these new ones were solid black, not gauzy gray, worried me. But I was a 2-hour drive from home and I had a service to attend. After making a commitment to see my optometrist first thing the next morning, I turned my attention to my immediate obligations.

The floaters did not worsen over the afternoon, and I arrived home safely at 7 in the evening.

Dusk had turned to night while I drove, and it was only when I stepped into the light of my living room that I saw I had a new symptom: a flashing light that varied in color, sometimes red, sometimes yellow, most often blue.

flashing lights

My heart started to thump with fear. I knew this was not a good development. I checked online. Yup. A sudden increase or change in floaters combined with flashing light was a potential sign of a torn or detached retina. It could lead to blindness in 2 or 3 days, and the online sites recommended that one treat it as an emergency.

I went to the emergency room.

There I was diagnosed with a torn vitreous in my left eye. I’m still not entirely sure what a torn vitreous is. They didn’t explain it well at the ER. But I gathered that it was expected to heal on its own and that it did not threaten blindness. Researching after the fact, I found that the National Eye Institute has this to say about it:

“Most of the eye’s interior is filled with vitreous, a gel-like substance that helps the eye maintain a round shape. There are millions of fine fibers intertwined within the vitreous that are attached to the surface of the retina, the eye’s light-sensitive tissue. As we age, the vitreous slowly shrinks, and these fine fibers pull on the retinal surface. Usually the fibers break, allowing the vitreous to separate and shrink from the retina. This is a vitreous detachment.

“In most cases, a vitreous detachment, also known as a posterior vitreous detachment, is not sight-threatening and requires no treatment.”

The only bad part? While my eye healed, I was at increased risk for a retinal tear.

Still, good news. I went home with instructions to come back if my symptoms worsened.

Of course, you know what happened.

All of Friday, my symptoms lessened. The three black spots grew smaller and then disappeared altogether. The flashing light flashed less often. I kept my fingers crossed. I really didn’t want anything bad to happen to my retina. My eyesight is absolutely precious to me. I didn’t want to be blind in one eye. Please, please, please!

Just before I went to bed in the wee smalls of Saturday (1 AM), a sudden cascade of floaters appeared in my left eye, more than I’d ever seen before. But they were gray, not black. So what did this mean? I’d already had one false alarm. Was this another? What should I do? Go to the ER again?

grey veil of floaters

I should have gone to the ER.

I didn’t.

When I woke up the next day, the veil of gray floaters remained, and the flashing lights had changed to a solid peninsula of dark gray that sometimes blinked out to a medium gray or a light gray.

flashing gray spot

Uh, oh!

I went to the ER, where they diagnosed me with a torn retina.

I had an immediate procedure to repair the tear: not surgery, but a cryofreeze “stitching” of the torn piece back onto the rest of the retina. It was painful, but I’d do it again if I had to, because this way I get two chances to keep the vision in my left eye. If the cryofreeze procedure fails, I still have the surgery option.

But… hoo boy!

I’d feared the numbing shot to my eye. Turns out that is nothing to worry about. They numb your eye first with very effective drops, and you look up when it’s time for the shot. The needle goes into the lower white of the eye where you can’t see it. And it feels like a momentary speck of dust in the eye. Not bad at all.

But the cryofreezing involved the insertion of a probe between my eyeball and the eye socket. The probe was then pushed quite far in, which was uncomfortable and unnerving. Your body just knows that nothing belongs in that space but your eye! But the numbing drops and the numbing injection kept it from being acutely painful. It was bearable. Just.

Once the freeze was instituted on the probe though… ouch! Bearable, but only barely. If only my retina hadn’t needed so much “stitching.” The doctor must have inserted that probe thirty times or more, and with each insertion I tired a little more, lost my ability to bear up a little more. The last 6 insertions were almost unbearable.

I hope I don’t ever have to go through it again, because it would be a lot harder with foreknowledge. I would want to do it (if necessary) to save my vision. And I would dread the discomfort and pain.

By the time my doctor injected a bubble into my eye – to stabilize the “stitching” – I no longer cared about unnerving and uncomfortable experiences. This time the needle went straight into the seeing part of my eye, and I almost didn’t mind, because it didn’t hurt!

My ordeal wasn’t quite done. My eyeball had suffered an abrasion during the procedure. This is common, but a scratch on the eye is one of the most painful kinds of pain. I’m not sure why my doctor sent me home with instructions to take 2 tylenol. I landed in the ER one more time, because I couldn’t take the pain.

They tried to control the pain with oxycodon, which didn’t even touch it. A shot of morphine finally took my pain level down from a 10 out of 10 to a 7 out of 10.

Fortunately, abrasions on the eye heal quickly. The pain subsided rapidly, was well controlled at home with the prescribed pain meds, and was gone altogether 3 days later.

I learned how to sleep sitting up (necessary to keep the gas bubble positioned properly over the repair to my retina). I developed stamina for reading with one eye. (My sight in the left eye remains blurry as I type this post, and the eye itself is too sensitive to keep it open.)

My first check-up occurred 12 hours after the cryo-procedure, and my docotor decided to reinforce the cryo-stitching with a little laser-stitching, which was uncomfortable only because of that abrasion.

My second check-up 2 days later, and my third, a week later, showed the repair to be holding perfectly. Yay! I received permission to sleep lying down on my left side after the fourth check-up.

I got incredibly tired of sleeping sitting up, and I thought sleeping lying down on my left side would be wonderful. It wasn’t as great as I’d thought. I didn’t realize how much I changed position while sleeping. Keeping to one position while sleeping is uncomfortable, but I’m managing.

I even hope I might be able to resume work on Tally the Betrayals (a Lodestone Tale) next week. I want to! I miss writing! But the aftermath of the cryopexy (as I believe the procedure is called) is not for sissies! So… one day at a time.

I won’t be sure that my retina won’t rip (a risk of cryopexy) somewhere else until my fifth check-up, at the end of February, but I am cautiously optimistic.

If you’re the praying type, I’d appreciate your prayers. (Even a hint that I could be permanently blind in one eye scares me silly.) If you’re the type who sends healing vibes, I’d love those, too. And if you prefer to simply wish me well, I’m down for that also. 😀

I’ll report back after my next check up.

 

Cottage of the Norns

Sketch of the cottage of the norns

My first experience of the cottage where my norns in Fate’s Door live was through the eyes of Nerine, their handmaiden.

It’s the the end of winter, when the trees are leafless and the long grasses matted and dead. The stone cottage looks bleak without the flowering vines that adorn it in spring and summer and turn flaming red in autumn.

From the outside, the cottage seems a simple two-room affair. But when you go in . . . ah!

The front space isn’t two small rooms, but one large one, made bright with quilted orange window coverings and a rag rug of blues and greens. It’s sparsely furnished. Just a round table and chairs, a corner cabinet, pegs for cloaks, and a generous armoire for storage.

Hearth fireThe fire in the hearth on the left is usually banked, because the norns spend more time weaving than relaxing.

But where was the loom? The great loom on which fate was woven?

I followed Nerine as she passed through a door in the back wall. There was the loom!

It was huge and possessed a monstrous presence. Even Nerine – accustomed to it at this point in the story – could not ignore the loom’s power as she went about gathering threads and other supplies for the day’s weaving.

wool on shelfShe rooted amongst the shelves and cabinets along the walls, always aware of the loom.

I didn’t see the rest of the cottage until later – after an uncomfortable confrontation with the norns themselves.

Shaken, Nerine walked down a hallway leading from the back wall of the weaving chamber to her room. And then I knew that her room, as well as the chambers of the norns, all lay off that hallway.

At that point, I drew a quick sketch of the floorplan to keep the arrangement of the cottage straight in my mind.

I’d always imagined that I worked out the designs of the houses and palaces in my stories before I wrote the scenes that take place in them. After all, I drew a colossal plan for the cavern palace – the Lainkath – in Troll-magic before I wrote the scenes that took place there. Or so I remembered it.

But my memory was playing me false.

Lorelin entered the the great hall of that palace first, was served a meal in its luncheon parlor, played the spinet in its music room, and was shown her bedchamber, before I realized I needed to draw a map to keep it all straight.

So my experience of the cottage of the norns is, in fact, typical.

I see the places in my stories through my characters’ eyes first. And then – when necessary – I draw maps and floorplans to make sure the rooms stay in the right places as I write subsequent scenes. 😀

I drew a tidier floorplan to show the layout of the norns’ cottage to you (below), as well as a sketch of the cottage as it appears to Nerine in the second scene of the book Fate’s Door (above).

Floorplan of the norns' cottage

For more about Nerine’s world, see:
The Norns of Fate’s Door
The Baltic Sea
The Ancient Goths
Lugh and the Lunasad
Crossing the Danube
The Keltoi of Európi
Vertical Looms
Names in Ancient Greece
Warships of the Ancient Mediterranean

 

The Nine Muses of Antiquity

Roman sarcophagus depicting the nine musesThe Muses of the ancient Greeks were goddesses of the knowledge embodied in poetry, song, and story. They served as sources of inspiration for science and the arts. Their number varied throughout history, but I chose the classical nine to appear in my novel blending Greek mythology with ancient history, Fate’s Door.

The Muses Clio, Euterpe, and Thalia by Eustache Le SueurCalliopethe muse of epic poetry and eloquence, with her symbols of stylus, writing tablet, and lyre. Epic poems were long, recited narratives on serious subjects, describing heroic deeds and events significant to a culture or city-state. Epic poetry possessed greater status than other types of poetry.

Cliothe muse of history, with her symbols of scroll and tablet.

Euterpethe muse of music, song, and elegiac poetry, with the aulos (similar to a flute) as her symbol. In ancient times, elegy was always sung and accompanied by the music of the aulos. It required a specific rhythm and form, but was not limited to lament in content, as it is today. Elegiac poetry was always sung and accompanied by flute music.

Polyhymnia by Giuseppe FagnaniEratomuse of lyric poetry, with the cithara (similar to the lyre) as her symbol. Lyric poetry expressed personal emotions and was in the first person, I. Lyric poetry was always sung and accompanied by strummed music.

Melpomenethe muse of tragedy, with her symbols of tragic mask, sword, club, and boots.

Polyhymniathe muse of sacred poetry, sacred hymn, sacred dance, meditation, and geometry, with her symbols of veil and grapes.

Terpsichorethe muse of dance, with her symbols of the lyre and plectrum, played for dancing.

The Muses Melpomene, Thalia, and Polyhymnia by Eustache Le SueurThaliathe muse of comedy and idyllic poetry, with her symbols of comic mask, bugle, trumpet, shepherd’s crook, and ivy wreath. Idyllic poems were short descriptions of the small, intimate world of personal experience.

Uraniathe muse of astronomy, with her symbols of globe and rod.

One of the scenes I cut from Fate’s Door features the continuous “party of the arts” which is life with the muses on Mount Helicon. Anippe, the youngest sister of my protagonist Nerine, tends the spring of inspiration patronized by the muses, and thus serves as an inspiration to inspiration. 😀

The Muses Urania and Calliope by Simon Vouet

19 ~ Agnippe and the Muses

Later in the day, when Nerine met the muses, she discovered they were just as impressive as the gods of Olympus, but in a very different way.

She’d donned her long green silk gown again – dry from hanging on a rose bush in the sunlight – and Agnippe had changed from her belt and pectoral to a knee-length gown of rose silk. She carried a tray bearing a ewer of spring water and nine chalices of varying design.

The muses were gathered on the stage of an intimate amphitheater, with stone seating cut into the mountain, and a simple colonnade as a backdrop. Euterpe, the Muse of Song, stood on a pedestal singing. She wore a long, draping gown of marigold yellow, and her honey-hued hair was elaborately braided and pinned.

But Nerine, entering the stage from one side with Agnippe, barely noticed the charming picture before her. Euterpe’s voice soared, golden and mellow in its lower notes, silver and sweet in the higher ones.

Nerine felt the world turn within her, deep in her heart, while the sky shivered into rainbow streamers, as though the whole of creation sang.

She returned to herself only when Euterpe ceased her song.

The gathered muses – some leaning against the pillars of the colonnade, a few seated on the stage flagstones, others clustered around Euterpe – signified their approval in differing ways according to their natures.

Only one clapped her hands together and laughed: a blonde garbed in a rose slightly lighter than that Agnippe wore. Might she be Thalia, the Muse of Comedy?

An aqua-gowned muse wiped tears of joy from her cheeks. A lilac muse gazed raptly at the sky. The Muse of Astronomy? And a peach muse circled Euterpe in graceful dance steps.

All of them exuded the glory that imbued their arts – a nimbus of exaltation and brightness that quickened the pulse and flushed the cheek. Nerine felt more overborne by it than she had by the potency cloaking the greater gods. If Hera were a spring tide – massive and inexorable – then the muses were a fountain bursting from the earth in joy and abandon.

Euterpe, the golden singer, caught sight of Agnippe and Nerine first. She leaped lightly down from her pedestal, exclaiming. “Sisters! The bearer of our inspiration approaches!”

Her quick steps toward them were graceful enough to be a dance, and her sister muses streamed after her, all of them clustering around Agnippe and speaking at once.

“What draught have you now for us?”

“Is this the Nerine you have spoken of?”

“Hidden in the daybreak by Helios, the great Karkinos ascends, blessing all who travel north!”

“Nerine” – the peach muse grabbed Nerine’s hand – “you look born to perform the pidiktos, the leaping dance! May I teach you?”

“Introduce us!” chimed a muse in pale green.

Agnippe laughed and passed through the throng, drawing Nerine and the peach muse with her, to the pedestal abandoned by the singer Euterpe. She set down her tray there and began pouring from the ewer into the various chalices, using a different grip on the ewer’s handles for each to produce different shapes in the stream of water.

“The silent wisdom of the Karkinos for you, Urania.” A silver chalice set with amethysts went to the lilac-gowned muse.

“A new melody for you, Euterpe!” In a golden chalice adorned by topazes.

“A variant rhythm for you, Terpsichore.” The peach-garbed muse holding Nerine’s hand received a copper chalice, shaped to resemble an opening bud.

The blended voices of the muses sounded like the ripple of a musical brook, but their speech quieted as each received her cup from Agnippe and sipped.

Into the growing silence Agnippe presented Nerine. “Please welcome Nerine Merenou Pelagieus, my sister and my friend. She has traveled from the heart of the Middle Sea and has yet farther to go.”

Each of the muses paused in her sipping to raise her chalice in her own characteristic way – overhead, subtly tilted, to eye level, and so on – and spoke a blessing.

“Be at home, here and in yourself.”

“May you seek inspiration each morning and find delight as the sun sets.”

“Remember to laugh!”

“It is well to journey north under the ascendance of the Karkinos.” That was the lilac-gowned muse again. Her preoccupation with the zodiac must mean she was the Muse of Astronomy, guessed Nerine.

As the afternoon blended into the golden light of a summer evening, Nerine decided that the muses threw a much better party than the gods. Not that this was truly a party. It seemed to be the natural order of life on Mount Helicon.

Formality was entirely absent, one activity flowing into another without plan or pomp, according to chance and what caught the muses’ fancy.

They sang roundels under golden Euterpe’s guidance and then engaged in impromptu comedic drama with rosy Thalia. Nerine found herself singing in parts with neither worry nor trouble, and then devising a sequence of slapstick humor.

Terpsichore – the peach one – led them to the meadow beyond the topmost tier of the amphitheater to dance, and Nerine found herself performing the leaping pidiktos, as promised, with only one stumble when she forgot – in mid-air – that she was not suspended in water. Then Polyhymnia called for an interval of meditation before a hymn.

As the sky deepened from rich turquoise to a deep cobalt which seemed to reach beyond the edge of the earthly sphere, a light breeze sprang up. Nerine found herself walking through a birch forest – its leaves arustle with the moving airs – beside Clio, the Muse of History, and chatting with her as though to a lifelong friend.

“You’ll have such opportunities as you travel north,” said Clio seriously. “The customs of the Keltoi and the Gutones are very strange, quite different from those of the Hellenes. Request papyrus and ink from Lord Hermes that you may record the marvels you see!”

A pang of grief and loss shot through Nerine’s breast. Just so had Altairos promised to record all the experiences of his travels, but she had curtailed his chance to share them with her. Should she now compile a similar history that she would never share with him? Perhaps the symmetry of it would balance . . . something.

When she emerged from the birch grove, the stars shone in the deepening sky, and Urania had arranged a cluster of spyglasses that the muses and their guest might view the planet Hesperus at the peak of its splendor, gleaming like a teardrop kindled by fire.

As Nerine withdrew her eye from her spyglass, the shepherd youths who had greeted her upon her descent from the pegasus were present again, spreading tapestries over the meadow grasses, and serving supper.

The scent of crushed grass mingled with the savory aromas of roast lamb and the lighter fragrances of berries.

More vignettes of culture – an epic poem, a tragic drama – followed the meal. Nerine participated as before, comfortable and welcomed, but she found a sliver of her attention pursuing her sister. Agnippe was radiant, partaking of everything, but also consulted by the muses. Might this arpeggio be better if extended another beat? Would that rhyme be more effective if moved to the middle of the line rather than falling at the end?

Agnippe filled her post on Helicon just as surely, just as joyously, as Eilidh occupied hers on Olympus.

Nerine gave herself over to happiness for a time. Enjoying the rapture of the night, and enjoying the awareness that two of her sisters were happy. Life could bring gifts to those who were open to them. Good fortune might yet bless her too. But she wouldn’t think about herself tonight. She would be here and now, beguiled by the moment and rejoicing for Eilidh and Agnippe.

Despite her focus on her sisters, she’d gotten herself back, she realized. The sense of self she’d lost on Olympus had returned here on Helicon.

She was wholly Nerine again, inside and out. The Nerine who loved her youngest sister. The Nerine who loved new things and new places and meeting new people.

That Nerine was back and it felt as glorious as Euterpe’s song, as Terpsichore’s dance, as Urania’s star gazing.

It was wonderful to be herself again.

But had she lost something else in the reclaiming of herself?

What had she lost? For she had lost something.

A softening – like a mist – rose up behind her, obscuring all that was neither Olympus nor Helicon. Her past seemed as far away in time as the reef palace was in distance. Had she really dwelt all her life in the Middle Sea? Traveled only so far as Duke Thiago’s palace in the Gulf of Gallicus? Gone ashore only on the isle of Lapadoússa?

It seemed a dream, not a history, and it had happened to someone other than her.

Had she really met and fallen in love with a prince of Zakynthos and then renounced him? A stab of pain through her heart assured her that she had.

But the sense of detachment piling up around her memories draped a veil over them, lessening their immediacy. For now, she was not Nerine of the Middle Sea, but Nerine of Helicon. And being Nerine of Helicon was delightful.

Later in the night, she found herself with Agnippe, curled on a pile of softest fleece under an arching trellis covered with blooming honeysuckle. The sweet, sweet scent of the vines drenched her, and the darkness wrapped her round as gently as water from a warm spring.

“Is it always like this?” Nerine murmured.

Agnippe chuckled. “Nearly always. Some days the work is more like work. When Calliope cannot settle on the right meter for her epic nor Melpomene devise the right dramatic beat for her tragedy. But work more usually masquerades as play, and the play is the work.”

“I wish I could stay here,” said Nerine. Except she didn’t. Not truly. “I wish I could be you. Or one of them.” That she did wish, but knew – in spite of the wish – that she would be less than herself, if her wish could become reality.

Agnippe shifted on her portion of the fleece cushioning. “No, you don’t.”

“This afternoon and this evening have been . . . magical.” Nerine felt drowsy and hyper aware at the same time. Did the arts always produce an altered state? Perhaps only when the muses performed.

Agnippe found Nerine’s hand and clasped it loosely in hers. “The magic of the muses is extraordinary, but you have your own magic, Nerine. And you won’t develop it here. I think you are right to go to the norns. I think . . . you will be surprised by what awaits you there.”

Unease threaded Nerine’s contentment. “Do you know something I do not?” she asked.

“I know nothing,” said Agnippe, “but I have an intuition that it will all be different than what you expect, and that the difference is exactly what you need. Even though I don’t know what you need, and you don’t know what you need – just like Xianthe – it will come to you.” Agnippe’s voice was a mere breath, soft and low. “Or you are going to it.

The late moon, very full, rose above the shadowy treeline edging the glade around the trellis. Dapples of moonlight peeped through the honeysuckle, speckling Nerine, her sister, and the fleeces beneath them. A breeze moved the leaves and the pattern of moonshine. The heavy fragrance of the flowers – almost too sweet – lightened.

“Still no word from Xianthe?” asked Agnippe.

Nerine refused to be worried in this haven of peace. Eilidh and Agnippe had come home to themselves. The promise of the same – or something even more astonishing – awaited Nerine. Surely Xianthe would find her way too.

“No word,” said Nerine. “But the fates spin her thread as surely as they spin ours.”

Agnippe laughed, soft and clear. “And you go to the fates. Perhaps you will spin Xianthe’s homecoming.”

Perhaps she would.

*     *     *

Bidding Agnippe farewell the next morning was both harder and easier than Nerine expected.

She’d loved her brief stay on Helicon. Loved it! The muses were delightful, and their idea of fun was actually fun. But she sensed that the arts were not really the home her spirit sought. She might be distracted by bliss, if she were to live here, but she would not find the deeper anchoring that meant more to her.

She could leave Mount Helicon quite calmly.

But Agnippe! Oh!

Her sister had resumed belt and pectoral – this set fashioned of linked plates of swirling green malachite – because she would be tending the sacred spring after Nerine’s departure. She was a slim sylph of a girl, with the modest curves of the almost-fifteen that she was, but with strength in her carriage.

Her face showed a curious mix of emotion – lips trembling in her sadness at parting from Nerine, green eyes serene with her confidence in Nerine’s future and lit with the excitement that working in her spring brought.

Nerine hugged her convulsively. She would not see Agnippe for years. Five years? Ten years? Agnippe would be all grown up when Nerine visited her next. Would they still know one another?

“We’ll always be sisters,” Agnippe whispered, “always friends. You will know me, and I, you.”

Nerine relinquished her hold on her sister enough to see her eyes. How was it that Agnippe often seemed to read her mind? Nerine studied Agnippe’s face. Agnippe knew how to trust both herself and her future.

Agnippe’s trust would have to be enough for Nerine too, because Nerine . . . had no trust in herself at this moment.

“I love you,” Nerine said.

Agnippe smiled. “I love you too.”

And then Nerine was following the shepherd boys down the mountain to the meadow where she would mount the pegasus.

She looked back once.

Agnippe stood in the distance at the top of the slope, very straight, the sun turning her long green-blond hair to gold. She raised her arm in farewell. Nerine returned the gesture and turned away, rounding a bend in the path that removed Agnippe from sight.

Nerine drew in a shaky breath.

*     *     *

To purchase and read Fate’s Door: Amazon

For more extra chapters from Fate’s Door, see:
Update on Fate’s Door (Eilidh and Mount Olympus)
Nerine’s Youngest Sister (Agnippe and Mount Helicon)

 

The Norns of Fate’s Door

The Three Moirai by Johann Gottfried Schadow

The three Fates appeared in many of the mythologies of ancient Europe. They were often envisioned as goddesses weaving on a loom, the tapestry thus created shaping the destinies of both mortals and gods.

The Spinner by William-Adolphe BouguereauThe ancient Greeks had the three Moirai. The word moira meant portion or share or lot of booty or treasure, and over time came to refer to one’s portion or lot in life, one’s fate.

Clotho, the spinner, spun the thread of life, the animating energy that gifted mortal and immortal with awareness and existence. She was also said to be a singer, singing of the things that are, the present.

Lachesis was the allotter or the drawer of lots, and she measured the thread of life meted out to each individual with her measuring rod. The beginning mark signified birth, while the ending mark was death. When she joined her sisters in song, she sang of the things that were, the past.

Atropos was “the unturning one,” also called inexorable or inevitable. She chose the nature of each person’s death, and when that dread moment arrived, cut the thread of life with her knife. She sang of the things that would be, the future.

The ancient Romans had their own version of the Fates: the Parcae, the goddesses of destiny.

The Parcae by Alfred AgacheNona, named after the ninth month of pregnancy, spun the thread of life. Decima, also revered as the goddess of childbirth, measured the thread of life with her rod. And Morta, the “Dead One,” chose the manner of each indiviual’s death and cut the thread of life.

It’s worth noting the slightly different connotations connected to “destiny” versus “fate.” Fate implies that the events of an individual’s life are ordered, inevitable, and unavoidable. While destiny refers to the finality of events as they have worked themselves out through the passage of time.

I can’t help wondering if the Romans conceived of a little “wiggle room” being available to the individual in the form of choice, where the Greeks may have believed that their lives were entirely predestined. I don’t have the answer to that question, but the Fates I portray in Fate’s Door adhere more to the Roman ideal of destiny than the Greek one of fate.

The Norns by Johannes GehrtsGiven that my story – Fate’s Door – is set in the 4th century BC, when the Hellene culture was ascendant, why didn’t I use the Greek personifications of the Fates? Why did I chose the Norse Norns instead?

Perhaps the most honest answer is simply that the Greek Morai felt wrong for the roles in Fate’s Door, but there were a few more elements that had bearing on my creative vision.

For one, the Greek Morai are often portrayed as living in some desolate region far from the bounds of civilization. A wilderness at the foot of craggy mountains on the edge of the world. Or a dry and desert region below a looming cliff of black rock. They certainly lived nowhere near Mount Olympus.

If my Fates dwelt in the far north, as I envisioned them, then wouldn’t the mythologies of the Nordic peoples influence their manifestation?

The Hellenes might envision them as the Morai and speak of them as Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos. But just as the Keltoi developed a different vision for Hermes and called him Lugh, so the northern Scandians would have their own idea of the Fates. The Norns might easily conform more closely to the Scandian ideal, even while the Greeks pursued their own vision.

My other reason for choosing the Norse Norns is more subtle, having to do with the cosmology of my story, and how I mapped the mythologies of the ancient world onto the history of that world.

I imagine the greater deities such as Zeus and Athena as arising from the cultural consciousness of the times. They possess more definition and permanence than the lesser demi-gods and nature spirits representing specific localities, such as the the Hippocrene Springs, or cultural concepts such as loyalty and honor.

Thus, while Zeus is always Zeus, the naiad of the Hippocrene Springs merely holds that role for a limited time, and passes on to another station or post when she is ready for a change.

Sea spirits (nereides), tree spirits (dryads), mountain spirits (oreads) and more animated the cosmos of the ancients.

A Naiad by John William Waterhouse

My Fates are time spirits, going back to the earliest of eras when sewing needles were invented in 19,000 BC in pre-historic France, or even earlier when thread was created from flax in 36,000 BC in Russia-to-be.

The very first weaver of destiny was a goddess, Mother Holle, working at a primitive ground loom. But as humanity acquired greater sophistication, and their world view grew more complex, Mother Holle acquired helpers – spirits of time, the Norns – and eventually abdicated her role to her helpers entirely.

As humans developed better weaving tools, the Norns benefited as well. Although the task of transferring the tapestry of the world from a ground loom to a vertical loom must have been formidable indeed.

vintage and ancient scissorsBecause my Norns are spirits of time, they have some access to both the past and the future. Some of their materials, such as pivoting scissors instead of spring scissors, come from the future, as does the complex brocade loom that they are using when Nerine arrives.

Of course, my Norns don’t conform exactly to the Norse Urthr (“fate”), Verthandi (“in the making”), and Skuld (“debt” or “future”).

Instead, I have Tynghed (derived from the Welsh “destiny”), Eowys (Anglo-Saxon “horse-wise”), and Orroch (Early English “oar”). I suspect that Urthr, Verthandi, and Skuld might have served the great loom of fate sometime after my story takes place, in the centuries when the Roman Empire dominated and the Germanic tribes – with their Norse dieties – nibbled at the Roman borders.

But like their later counterparts, my Tynghed, Eowys, and Orroch draw water from the Well of Fate, with which to water the World Tree, and they watch the visions of destiny in the Well’s dark magic.

Fate by Alphonse Mucha

For more about the world of Fate’s Door, see:
The Baltic Sea
The Ancient Goths
Lugh and the Lunasad
Crossing the Danube
The Keltoi of Európi
Vertical Looms
Names in Ancient Greece
Warships of the Ancient Mediterranean
Calendar of the Ancient Mediterranean

For more about the three Fates, see:
The Moirai
The Parcae
The Norns

 

How I Wrote and RE-WROTE Cover Copy for My Novel

How to Write Fiction Sales Copy by Dean Wesley SmithI recently read How to Write Fiction Sales Copy by Dean Wesley Smith, and it is excellent. Excellent! I can’t say enough good things about it.

In the course of writing “blurbs” or cover copy for my own stories, I’ve perused a lot of how-to advice for same. Some advice proved helpful. (And I needed a lot of help! Marketing does not come naturally to me.) Some of it sounded reasonable, but when I followed the instructions, I generated some of the worst copy of my life. And most of the advice available was geared toward non-fiction.

But Dean has succeeded in bottling lightning – or come very close to it, indeed.

In How to Write Fiction Sales Copy, he lays out two general guiding principles and then proceeds to describe seven patterns or “formulas” – the structural bones – for writing sales copy. He includes numerous examples (for real stories destined for the marketplace) illustrating each approach.

I learn best by example, so this was pure gold for me.

But the bottled lightning? After reading the 32 example blurbs, I wanted to go buy and read every single story they presented. Every single one! Now that’s successful sales copy!

lightning

TWO FOUNDATIONAL PRINCIPLES

So what are Dean’s two guiding principles? Because I’ve taken workshops taught by him, I’d heard them before, and blogged about them, too. But in the interests making this post about cover copy complete, I’ll restate them.

1 • Stay out of the story’s plot.

Readers read a book to experience the plot in all its magnificence, told with all the skill that the storyteller can manifest. Regurgitating the plot in the sales copy will do nothing but wipe the wonder from it. It certainly won’t sell the story. There are better ways.

How do you know you are down in the plot? Your copy will have a lot of what boils down to “and then this happened.”

If you see a lot of “and then this happened,” you’ve done it wrong. Delete and start over.

If you’ve got a little dash of “and then this happened,” figure out how to get rid of it. The rest of your copy might be good.

Writing blurbs that sink into the plot of my story is my great weakness. I cannot tell you how many times I solicited feedback in Dean’s first workshop, “Pitches and Blurbs,” only to be told: “Nope. You’re down in the plot again.”

I must always check my blurbs for this problem.

2 • Use active verbs; avoid the passive voice like the plague.

That means avoiding verb constructions that require “is,” was,” “had,” “have,” and the like.

I’m lucky enough to possess a knack for avoiding passive verbs when I write sales copy. Occasionally an “is” sneaks by me, but that’s rare. However, most fiction writers, when they start writing sales copy, fall into either the trap of focusing on the plot of their stories, or the trap of using passive verbs, or both.

And no matter how agile I am at avoiding passive verbs, my tendency to dive into the plot still kills my blurbs just as dead.

Those are Dean’s two principles, and they are critically important, but it was his “formulas” and examples that really brought my understanding to a new level.

DEAN WESLEY SMITH’S BASIC BLURB PATTERN

In this blog post, I thought I’d talk about the first formula presented in How to Write Fiction Sales Copy and show…

Kay Nielsen art depicting a lassie aback a north-bear…not only how I used it to improve the sales copy for my novel Troll-magic, but the entire journey that particular blurb has traveled: from its first incarnation (when I knew exactly nothing about writing sales copy), through my poor first stabs at using copywriting principles, and on to my latest version, created after reading How to Write Fiction Sales Copy.

At the very least, you’ll get a good laugh at the absurdity of my student efforts. But I hope you’ll also learn a little something.

So what is the basic blurb pattern?

Paragraph 1: Introduce the protagonist and/or the world. Nail the genre, if at all possible.
Paragraph 2: Introduce the story problem. Limit yourself to the content of the first page of a short story, the first scene of a novella, or the first chapter of a novel.
Paragraph 3: Raise the stakes.
Paragraph 4: State why the reader wants to read the story, using largely genre tags or keywords.

Now, that is too abstract for me. I’m sure there are those of you who could go on swimmingly from there, but I am not among that lucky company, alas.

But no troll-witch permits...

AN EXAMPLE

So, to use an example, let’s look at each paragraph of the most recent, updated blurb for Troll-magic.

North-land spellcasters who summon excessive power transform into trolls – potent, grotesque, and hungry for control.

This first paragraph introduces the world – a fantasy world featuring spellcasters and trolls and malevolent magic – and identifies the genre.

Prince Kellor, cursed by the troll-witch Mandine to live as a north-bear, wrestles with the challenges of his beast form. Pain wracks his body. Unpredictable rages blur his mind. And his thoughts spin out of all sense, confusing his search for the loopholes that every curse possesses.

This second paragraph introduces the protagonist and his problem. Prince Kellor suffers from a nasty curse. Some way of escaping from it exists, but Kellor doesn’t know what that might be.

His curse turns on the choices of his childhood friend Elle. She once shared Kellor’s idyllic rambles through the wilderlands. She now loves all things musical. Might Kellor persuade her to neglect her own life and save his? Should he?

Troll-magic is not only a novel, but a l-o-n-g novel, told with five point-of-view characters, although largely from the vantages of Kellor and Elle. So this paragraph is really just an extension of the blurb pattern’s “paragraph 2.” It introduces Elle as key to solving Kellor’s predicament.

But no troll-witch permits her prey to escape with ease. The illusory loopholes in Mandine’s curse all twist back to its entombing heart.

Paragraph 3 raises the stakes. In other words: Not so fast, Kellor! Most curses have loopholes, but not this one. Not really.

J.M. Ney Grimm tells a lyrical Beauty and the Beast tale, rife with moments of shining glory and dark magnificence, tumbling toward a lethal battle of wills and the impossible choices forced by clashing loyalties.

Paragraph 4 tells the reader that Troll-magic is a beauty-and-the-beast type story, that its events produce feelings of exaltation in the reader, that its theme deals with catch-22 choices and stubborn frenemies, and that its prose is well-crafted.

(Many of my readers comment on my “lyrical prose” and remark that certain events in my stories evoke such strong feelings of sheer joy that they’re transported and amazed. So I include phrases that touch on those elements. They are reasons to read my work.)

No doubt this is far from a perfect blurb. I’m still learning. But you can see Dean’s formula for his Basic Blurb Pattern at work. And, as you’ll discover when you read on, this is far better than any blurb for Troll-magic that I’d produced before.

"Why had he never noticed...

MY ATTEMPT TO CHEAT FATE

Now let’s visit my first ghastly stab at a blurb for Troll-magic, which surely deserved better than I was able to give it at the time.

“In short, she was the friend from his childhood . . . and yet not his old friend: taller, hints of curves. Why had he never noticed she was beautiful before? All his planned introductions slipped away.”

Kellor’s a prince in trouble. Lorelin’s a musician trapped by bucolic traditions. Both must defy a troll-witch’s curse while navigating a maze of hidden secrets.

So what the heck was that?

It’s not really a blurb at all, but merely an excerpt from Chapter 6 of the novel!

I was so utterly clueless – and I knew I was clueless – that I didn’t even try to write sales copy. I picked a delightful moment on the story, quoted from the manuscript, and then added a brief gloss following the quote.

Which meant I spoiled that moment for the reader, because it won’t be fresh for him or her when those three sentences arrive. And I shirked the job that belongs squarely in the publisher’s court.

Many books that go through traditional publishing never receive the attention of the sales force, and thus the sales copy is written by a book’s acquiring editor or even the intern who read the manuscript. And sometimes that person does just what I did: quotes from the story and avoids writing any copy at all.

But that’s not the way to interest readers in a book. And I chose the indie publishing route because I wanted to do better than the mediocre job often done by traditional publishing for novels written by midlist authors.

Just because I’m bad at the marketing angle doesn’t excuse me from learning how to do it properly and giving my books the marketing support that all books need.

Fighting against a nightmare...

MY STUDENT VERSION OF THE BLURB

So let’s look at what I developed after my first class on writing sales copy for fiction.

Fighting against a nightmare pales beside fighting for a dream.

An accursed prince and her own longing for music challenge Lorelin to do both.

But tradition and a hidden foe stand squarely in her way. How do you make dreams real when vision fails, allies undermine you, and all roads toward hope twist awry?

Can courage, honor, and loyalty prevail against a troll-witch’s potent curse?

Set within her enchanted North-lands, J.M. Ney-Grimm’s new take on an old Norse folk tale pits distorted malice against inner wisdom and grit.

Courage, honor, and loyalty...

WHY IT FAILED

First off, it is an actual blurb, not a mere pretense at one. Score one for Ney-Grimm!

The first line is an excellent hook. Dreams and nightmares are emotion-laden words. Nearly everyone has awakened from a nightmare with pounding heart and sweat-drenched brow, because the monster had caught them, the villain had pulled the trigger, or the zombie’s teeth had sunk into their flesh.

And most of us have cherished heartfelt dreams that meant everything to us.

Pairing the two concepts – fighting against a nightmare, fighting for a dream – let’s just say that it pleases me, lest I toot my own horn too loudly. 😉

The last paragraph also heads in the right direction. It lets the potential reader know that I’ve written many stories set in my North-lands, which is a fanatsy milieu. It indicates that the story is a retelling of an old Norse folk tale. Although, a caveat: many more readers will be familiar with Beauty and the Beast than know of Norse folk tales. And the last phrases tell the reader that the theme treats of inner strengths pitted against fear-inducing malevolence.

The paragraph works, but it could be much stronger.

The rest of the blurb is hopelessly vague. Clearly I was reacting to my known tendency of drowning in plot by flying so far above it that no one can figure out anything at all about my story.

That was certainly the reaction of my writers group when I asked their feedback.

Beyond the fact that Troll-magic featured a cursed prince and a musical country girl, the only certainty was that the story possessed a villain. But most stories have a villain – or at least an antagonist – so what is special about this one?

This was a blurb that failed to deliver the goods.

Elle quote

HELP FROM MY WRITERS GROUP

In the winter of 2013, I helped form a writers group with other indies who were interested in focusing on the publishing side of indie pubbing one’s books. We looked at one another’s book covers and gave feedback. We assessed our story openings for reader appeal and gave feedback. We brainstormed ways to let readers know that our stories existed.

And – writer by writer – we worked on cover copy.

When it was my turn, my fellow writers were incredibly generous. Every single one of them was better at cover copy than I was, and they each not only read Troll-magic (you do remember I said it was l-o-n-g, right?), but they wrote their own version of cover copy for it. Some of them wrote two or three versions! Super wonderful folk!

I studied each version, learned from them all, and then tried to produce my own improved version.

The idea was not to lean on one another permanently, but to learn and get better at the various skills necessary to publish a book well.

...from cool pine forests...

AFTER THE HELP

North-land spellcasters who wield excessive power transform into trolls – potent, twisted, and hungry for dominance.

Prince Kellor, cursed by a troll-witch to live as a north-bear, wrestles with the challenges of a beast’s form. He sees his childhood friend Elle as the key to his escape.

But charming Elle will be no easy task. Traversing that delicate passage between adolescence and adulthood, she struggles to balance family loyalty against her passion for music.

In this epic adventure across a stunning landscape, from cool pine forests to an icy pinnacle of basalt so real it leaves you shivering, Elle and Kellor must summon essential wisdom and grit to prevail against a troll-witch’s malice in a lethal battle of wills.

Fighting against a nightmare pales beside fighting for a dream.

THE GOOD AND THE BAD

If you compare the first two sentences od this version to my latest version, you’ll see that they are the same. They introduce the world, Prince Kellor, and his dire problem well.

But Elle appears as a means to an end, rather than an important POV character in her own right. And we still don’t know – from content of this blurb – what sort of a story this is and what exactly Kellor and Elle are trying to do, other than defeat the villain. Or prevent the villain from winning.

There is no clear statement of the stakes, let alone a raising of them.

I kept that blurb for a long time, however, because it was better than what I’d managed before. My skills at blurb writing were improving, but I still had more to learn.

The illusory loopholes...

DRAFTING SALES COPY

Finally, this August of 2015, Dean Wesley Smith wrote a series of detailed blog posts on the topic of writing sales copy for fiction, and it was as though the proverbial curtain were drawn back before my eyes. I read and re-read those blog posts. I took copious notes. When Dean turned those blog posts into a book, I bought it and reviewed the material.

And when I wrote the copy for my five new books – released November 12 – I followed the guidelines outlined in that book. I could see that they were much, much better than cover copy I’d developed before.

Then and there, I vowed to return to my backlist, once the new books were well launched.

Because the blurb for Troll-magic struck me as the worst of all the blurbs written B.C. (before How to Write Fiction Sales Copy), I tackled it first.

One thing I’ve learned through all my years of struggling with copy is that I have to wrestle a draft into shape first, using all my know-how (such as it is at the time), and then let that draft sit overnight. If I’ve done my work properly, a lot of that draft will be right on target.

And the next day, I’ll be able to see which parts are good, which parts need tweaking, and which parts should be ditched completely.

I cannot see any of this without a night’s sleep between draft and revision.

She once shared...

THE ALMOST-RIGHT VERSION

The following was my first draft for Troll-magic’s updated blurb.

Just to be clear, it’s not what first came from my pen. My working pages include copious “notes to self” about what I was aiming for, numerous sentences that I jot down to capture an idea and then cross out, even more paragraphs with lines drawn through phrases, other phrases inserted, and so on.

My blurb writing process is messy. It almost has to be.

So when I say, “first draft,” I mean what I hammered out over 6 hours of work!

Anyway, here it is!

North-land spellcasters who summon excessive power transform into trolls – potent, grotesque, and hungry for dominance.

Prince Kellor, cursed by the troll-witch Mandine to live as a north-bear, wrestles with the challenges of a beast’s form. Maddened by pain, his thoughts spin out of all sense. Rage shakes him unpredictably. And confusion dogs his search for one of the loopholes that every curse possesses.

His curse turns on the choices of his childhood friend Elle. She once shared Kellor’s wilderland rambles. She now loves all things musical and struggles against the lack of opportunity in her bucolic surroundings.

But no troll-witch permits her prey to escape with ease. The illusory loopholes in Mandine’s curse twist back into its dark heart. Unless Kellor unravels a paradox. Unless Elle performs the impossible.

A lyrically told Beauty and the Beast story in which distorted malice tests inner wisdom and essential grit.

That felt almost right to me. Almost, but not quite.

North-land spellcasters who...

WHAT NEEDED TO CHANGE

After I’d slept, I knew what needed to change.

First issue: “hungry for dominance.” The phrase inched too close to what one might find in steamy romance. It strikes the wrong note for epic fantasy with a thread of sweet romance running through it. I’d wanted to avoid the word “control,” because it seemed too modern for my Steam Age setting, and I still wouldn’t use the term in just this way within the story.

But sales copy can stand to be a little less scrupulous about anachronisms than can the story itself. And the issue with many trolls in my North-lands is one of control, although they would not say it that way.

So “hungry for dominance” became “hungry for control.”

Second issue: the string of sentences starting with “Maddened by pain,” isn’t punchy enough.

I have to strike a careful balance with this. Marketing copy needs to have impact. It is usually punchy and short. I like to follow that recommendation, but I also need to present a hint of the lyricism that surfaces here and there within my stories and is a reason why readers read my books.

But the “Maddened by pain” sequence is not lyrical. It’s merely dragged out and inefficient. I changed it to: “Pain wracks his body. Unpredictable rages blur his mind. And his thoughts spin out of all sense, confusing his search for the loopholes that every curse possesses.”

Third issue: “…and struggles against the lack of opportunity in her bucolic surroundings.”

No. Just, no. We need to focus on what lies between Elle and Kellor, rather than haring off on Elle’s issues. Yes, she has them. But the blurb is not the place to explore them. Blurbs need to stay tightly focused.

Fourth issue: “Unless Kellor unravels a paradox. Unless Elle performs the impossible.”

I strayed into plot with those remarks. Or else I was gilding the lily in my raising of the stakes. Cut!

Fifth issue: “A lyrically told Beauty and the Beast story in which distorted malice tests inner wisdom and essential grit.”

The first phrase is right on target, but everything after “in which” is vague and doesn’t tell the prospective reader why he or she will enjoy the book. It needs to go further than it does.

Rife with moments...

THE UPDATED BLURB

We saw the fully updated blurb at the beginning of this post, with my commentary between each paragraph.

Let’s look at it without those interruptions.

North-land spellcasters who summon excessive power transform into trolls – potent, grotesque, and hungry for control.

Prince Kellor, cursed by the troll-witch Mandine to live as a north-bear, wrestles with the challenges of his beast form. Pain wracks his body. Unpredictable rages blur his mind. And his thoughts spin out of all sense, confusing his search for the loopholes that every curse possesses.

His curse turns on the choices of his childhood friend Elle. She once shared Kellor’s idyllic rambles through the wilderlands. She now loves all things musical. Might Kellor persuade her to neglect her own life and save his? Should he?

But no troll-witch permits her prey to escape with ease. The illusory loopholes in Mandine’s curse all twist back to its entombing heart.

J.M. Ney Grimm tells a lyrical Beauty and the Beast tale, rife with moments of shining glory and dark magnificence, tumbling toward a lethal battle of wills and the impossible choices forced by clashing loyalties.

Better, don’t you think?

What has your experience with cover copy been like? As a reader, have you ever bought a book because of its sales copy? As a writer, do you struggle with writing it? Or does it come naturally to you? (It does for some, just not me!)

I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

For more about cover copy, see:
Cover Copy Primer
Eyes Glaze Over? Never!

Be aware that these earlier posts will carry you back in time with me on my journey through writing sales copy. The principles I put forward are sound, but my ability to execute them grows ever less, the farther back in time you go. 😀

A few places to find How to Write Fiction Sales Copy:
Amazon I B&N I Kobo

And few places to find Troll-magic:
Amazon I B&N I iTunes I Kobo I Smashwords

 

The Baltic Sea

Baltic Sea near KarklėThe Baltic Sea caused me all kinds of trouble in my writing of Fate’s Door.

First of all came the problem of what to call the dang thing.

I ran into this issue throughout the entire novel. The names from antiquity that get quoted everywhere are the ancient Roman names. There was the Mare Nostrum (Mediterranean) and the trireme (Greek trieres) and Karthago versus Karkhedon.

In some cases, I simply went with modern usage. Carthage. Why be unnecessarily obscure?

But Fate’s Door is set during the Hellenistic era when the ancient Greek world view dominated the Mediterranean. I found I often wanted the Hellene name for a thing. I usually had to dig for it. Lapadoússa, Európi, the Hyrcanian Sea, and so on.

But no matter how much digging I did, I could not find the Hellene name for the Baltic, if there even was one.

Reading about the etymology of “Baltic,” I could see that some version of “balt-” went back through many, many centuries. There was belt, used for two of the Danish Straits (The Belts). A legendary island (in the Baltic?) was named by Pliny (1st century AD) as Baltia. Pytheas (4th century BC – the time of Fate’s Door) named an island Basilia.

Odin's last words to BaldrOther scholars insist that the name originates from the Indo-European root bhel meaning “white” or “fair.” A few Swedish historians believe it derives from the god Balder of Norse mythology.

But I noticed that the etymology of Balder possesses as confused a history as does Baltic. Baldr, baldor, baltas, balths.

I read up on the religious beliefs of the ancient Scandinavian peoples.

They seem to have venerated a sun mother, a spear god, a sword god, and an axe god, who later became Ullin (Mother Holle), Othinn (Odin), Ingr (Freyr), and Thunrar (Thor). Who is to say that there might not have been a forerunner of Balder as well?

Nerine's voyage on the Baltic SeaI decided to go with Balder’s Sea.

But naming this northerly body of water was only the beginning of my tussle with the Baltic.

I’d estimated that my protagonist Nerine departed Mount Olympus around June 7. Her journey across Europe was roughly 1300 miles, which meant that it would take her 87 days. That is, she would arrive on the southern shore of the Baltic on September 2. Was that too late for her final push north?

When did the sun rise and set in Gdansk in September? What about Kemi in Finland? When did the Baltic Sea ice over?

Baltic Sea, March 2000, NASAWhy didn’t I ask these questions earlier? Aack!

Fortunately, my belated research gave me answers that meant I didn’t have to change the dates for Nerine’s departure.

In Gdansk, the sun rises at 5:54 AM on September 2 and sets at 7:35 PM. That’s 13.5 hours of daylight, plenty of time for travelling.

One more question bore on the answers to those above. Just how was Nerine getting from the southern shore to the northern one?

It’s clear that the people of ancient Scandinavia had already mastered boat building. The Gutones (the ancient Goths) in what would eventually become Poland came from either the island of Gotland or from Sweden by boat. All the coastal settlements traded extensively, and that trade arrived by sea. The mountainous terrain of Scandinavia made travel by land very difficult and chancy.

Badekunda stone shipThe cultural emphasis of the ancient Scandinavians on ships is reflected in a preoccupation with sea vessels. Stones outlining the shape of a ship surrounded the old burial mounds, symbolic ships to carry the dead into the afterlife. Their religious images depict the sun mother helped into the morning ship by a magical fish, carried past noon by a powerful sun horse and delivered to the evening ship, where a serpent helps the sun settle.

So Nerine would be going north by boat. But what type of a boat?

The earliest archaeological evidence we have for the vessels of ancient Scandinavia are the ships of Nydam Mose. The site was a sacred lake in the Iron Age, but became a peat bog, an excellent environment for preserving ship timbers. Archaeological digs unearthed three ships there, the largest and oldest made of oak.

Nydamboat.2

The oak ship has been dated to 310 or 320 AD, a good 600 years later than the time of Fate’s Door. But I suspected that this ship could provide clues about the earlier boats.

For one thing, it did not have a sail, but was propelled by 30 oarsmen. That seemed particularly significant, since the later Viking ships did have sails, and its contemporaneous ships of the Mediterranean also possessed sails.

clinker versus carvelThe Nydam Mose ship was clinker built. That is, the planks of the hull overlapped and were riveted together with woolen cloth to seal the seam. It would have been a significant innovation, if the Bronze Age vessels shared that design. Clinker ships are lighter and they can bend and flex, meaning that they withstand the battering of a storm-driven sea intact.

Interesting as I find these details, they weren’t directly pertinent to my story. How fast did the ship move, and how long would it take to row one from Gdansk, Poland to Kemi, Finland?

The oak ship of Nydam Mose was 75 feet long (23 meters) and 13 feet wide (4 meters). It was very close in size to the later Viking ships. And we know how fast the Viking ships were, both under sail and under oar. I would use the oar-driven speed for Nerine’s ship, the Saiwsgaitsa: between 5 and 6 knots (5.75 mph – 6.9 mph).

Nydam Mose ship, interior view

The Viking ships routinely travelled 75 miles per day, favorable winds or no.

At 6 mph, the Saiwsgaitsa would require 12.5 hours to go that far.

I couldn’t imagine the Gutonic oarsmen lingering in camp on shore. They were tough and phlegmatic. They’d be up before the dawn and on the water the moment the sky was light enough to see. And they’d make camp in the evening with just enough daylight remaining to permit the pegging of tents and the gathering of firewood. 12.5 hours was enough.

With 1100 miles to row, the sea journey would take 2 weeks. They’d make the northern shore by September 17.

On September 17, the sun rises in Kemi at 6:47 AM and sets at 7:44 PM. That’s just under 13 hours of daylight. The seafarers would be making a quick turnaround! They needed to get back south before the days grew too short.

The frozen Baltic SeaAnd before ice choked the water.

Ice begins to form in the northernmost reaches of the Baltic in mid-November. By late February, the entire northern half of the sea is frozen, with the peak of the ice falling in March. The thaw begins in April. By June, all of the ice has melted.

Just as experimental archaeologists made reconstructions of ancient Hellene merchant ships and ancient triremes, so did they create a reconstruction of the oak Nydam Mose ship. I wasn’t able to find a cool video of their venture, but in the course of my research on the ancient North, I discovered a wonderful video about Bronze Age Scandinavia.

At the time of Fate’s Door, the Bronze Age has just turned to the early Iron Age, but the dividing line between one era and the next is often much sharper in the history books than it is in the experience of the people who live through the change. I suspect that many facets of Bronze Age Scandinavia persisted into the first century of the Iron Age.

So take a look at these vignettes from the lands around the ancient Baltic Sea.

For more about Nerine’s world, see:
The Ancient Goths
Lugh and the Lunasad
Crossing the Danube
The Keltoi of Európi
Vertical Looms
Names in Ancient Greece
Warships of the Ancient Mediterranean
Calendar of the Ancient Mediterranean
Ground Looms

For more about the ships of Nydam Mose, see:
Nydam Mose on Flickr
Nydam Mose on Wikipedia
The Nydam Ships on NAVIS
The Nordic Bronze Age

 

Nerine’s Youngest Sister

Fate's Door, web cover 200I cut four chapters from the middle of Fate’s Door.

It was a lot of fun hanging around on Mount Olympus with Nerine and her eldest sister Eilidh. It was even more fun joining Nerine and her youngest sister Agnippe on Mount Helicon.

But I was indulging myself. All that loitering with the Greek gods brought my story to a near stop. So I reduced those chapters to a series of brief vignettes.

But I suspect some of my readers might enjoy dallying within Greek mythology as much as I do.

For those of you who share that taste of mine, here is a part of chapter 19 that was cut from the final manuscript. 😀

19 ~ Agnippe and Mount Helicon

Amidst the chattering opulence of Hera’s handmaidens Nerine possessed neither intimacy nor solitude. And she’d never hankered for luxury.

Groups and clusters seemed the natural mode of the handmaidens. They never walked alone or even in pairs.

All except one.

That one loner was a brunette who wore her hair in a simple braid circling her head, and who chose gowns of pale gray or pastel blue rather than the popular variations on white. When the handmaidens gathered to brush one another’s hair, the brunette sought the fountain shrine to bathe alone. If the handmaidens danced in the meadow, she walked the forest paths. Alone.

Nerine was reluctant to interrupt her solitude. Nor was she certain she wanted to draw attention to her by asking someone. But she was curious about this young woman who didn’t seem to fit in. Why was she on Mount Olympus? What was her role?

Before Nerine could learn much, Eilidh suggested a visit to Agnippe.

“You’re so close,” she said. “What a shame to miss the chance!”

Nerine hadn’t realized Mount Helicon rose nearby. Was her knowledge of Hellene geography so poor? No, she’d forgotten that the winged horses brought locations closer. The ten-day trek to the glades of the muses would be a mere morning’s flight aback a pegasus.

The valleys around Mount Helicon were less wild than the ridges around Mount Olympus – featuring olive groves – and the snow was gone from its peak.

Nerine alit amidst grasses on the mountain skirts, where a group of youths wearing sheepskins slung over one shoulder awaited her. Were they shepherds from the local village?

“Welcome, numen!” said their spokesman. “We shall guide you to the sacred spring.”

This was the first evidence she’d seen of direct contact – rather than spiritual connection – between mortal and divine. The young men clearly knew their way, leading her through bushy laurel trees and tall elms. They spoke in a dialect unfamiliar to her, and cleared fallen twigs from the path as they walked.

The sacred spring issued from a cleft in a low cliff to fill a pool, rushes growing in its shallows, and ringed by crab apple trees and wild roses. The water was very clear, with dancing dapples cast by its motion across the spring bottom.

As Nerine approached, Agnippe rose from the depths to stand amidst the rushes – slender and girlish; not yet entered into full womanhood – water streaming from her pale skin. She wore a belt and pectoral fashioned from small plates of nacre, and the sun lit rainbows in their gleaming surfaces. Her tightly curled blonde hair had grown to hang past her hips. She was luminously beautiful.

The shepherd boys faded away, leaving Nerine alone with her sister.

Agnippe didn’t hesitate – despite her dampness. She leapt to the spring bank to wrap Nerine in glad arms.

“Nerine! Nerine! Oh, Nerine!”

Nerine burst into tears. Seeing Agnippe after so long, feeling Agnippe’s embrace – it overwhelmed her.

“I’ve missed you,” gasped Nerine. “I’ve missed you so much.”

Agnippe laughed tearily. “I’ve got your gown wet. I’m sorry.”

“Can I see your spring? Is it permitted, or–?” Or was only the spring’s guardian allowed to enter the water. Nerine had a sudden longing to be underwater with her sister as though they were both at home in the reef together.

Agnippe waved one hand in a gesture of welcome and smiled, dashing the tears from her cheeks. “Only my permission is needed, and you have it. Come in!”

Nerine slipped out of her gown and entered the water bare, as though she were a little girl, needing no garb save her own skin. The spring was very cold, with that strange edge to it that fresh water possessed, although this felt mellower than the fountain on Mount Olympus.

Minnows darted amongst the rushes in the shallows. A frog hopped, splashing.

The water deepened, and Nerine submerged. Her spiracles opened, and she could taste the spring: sweet and refreshing and with a slight mineral tang that appealed. Agnippe appeared by her side.

“Do you like it? Can you tolerate the freshwater?” She looked anxious.

“It’s lovely. I love it!” Nerine reassured her.

Agnippe wanted to show her everything about her diminutive domain.

The flag lilies growing on the far bank, the gleaming snails, the water-smoothed pebbles, the swimming trout, the crayfish and – best of all – the underwater cave that stretched back under the cliff, with twisting passages and varied chambers. In one, a torrent from the heart of the mountain turned the water frothy with bubbles. In another, a cleft in the rock admitted a shaft of strong sunlight, striking sparkles of gold and silver from the surrounding stone.

Agnippe’s possessions from home occupied the inmost chamber.

Nerine couldn’t help admiring Agnippe’s underwater mansion, but she was relieved when they returned to the outside pool and could see the sky again, its warm blue fractured by the moving surface of the spring above them. The darting fish made the pool feel lively, friendlier, than the cool beauty of the caves.

“Do you stay in the water all the time?” asked Nerine. She’d imagined Agnippe on land, surrounded by the muses, with only brief sojourns in the spring. Why else would Agnippe have required a trousseau as extensive as Eilidh’s?

“Of course not!” Agnippe sounded surprised. She started to explain, then stopped and took Nerine’s hand. “Nerine . . . I don’t want to pry –” she looked younger than she had when Nerine first set eyes on her sister emerging from the water, and her voice sounded uncertain – “but, what are you doing here? I mean –” her voice strengthened – “it’s lovely to see you, but you aren’t just visiting me, are you? You’re traveling far into the north with the intent to stay.”

Agnippe drifted forward to kiss Nerine’s cheek. “I want you to be as happy as I am.”

Uneasiness stirred in Nerine’s belly. How could she explain her decision to her sister? She couldn’t bear to rehash the events that had led up to it. She didn’t want to simply shut Agnippe out by not answering at all. She refused to lie.

Sighing, she attempted to gather her thoughts. “You felt a real calling to be guardian of this spring of inspiration, didn’t you?”

Agnippe nodded.

“And I know Eilidh longed to join Queen Hera’s entourage,” Nerine continued. “She seems . . . more certain, more . . . anchored than I’ve ever known her to be. Have you seen her? Since you settled here?”

“She’s who she was meant to be, I think,” agreed Agnippe.

“Yes, that’s it exactly.” Nerine sighed again. “I think that’s what you were hoping for me. Am I right?”

Agnippe’s face looked very solemn, but she didn’t speak.

“And you fear I am making a mistake.” Nerine squeezed Agnippe’s hand.

“Are you?” Agnippe’s voice was very low.

“I might be, but I don’t think so. I don’t feel the same kind of calling that you and Eilidh feel. Or Tyr.” Their brother definitely loved his Tyrrhenian Sea, loved caring for it, loved living in it. “But waiting at home to figure it out . . . wasn’t working for me. I had to leave!” That burst out of her more strongly than she’d meant it to.

“But why Scandia?” Now Agnippe sounded upset. “I’ll never see you! And what will you do, if you discover your true calling – something other than weaving – once you’re there? You’ll be stuck!”

Nerine wasn’t sure which of those concerns to address first.

“I won’t be stuck,” she insisted. “How would the norns be seeking a handmaiden unless the previous one had left?”

“You’re going to them without making a real commitment?” Agnippe sounded shocked, no doubt because her own commitment to her spring had been so immediate and intense.

“I don’t go lightly,” Nerine contended. “I shall learn all that they need me to, that I may fulfill my duties well. I shall give them the best that is in me. And I have some skill with textiles already.”

Agnippe’s brow wrinkled. “But . . .”

Nerine swirled her right foot in the cool water. “Eilidh is everything a handmaiden is meant to be, but some of the others . . . are not. Some are too intimidated by the divine presence. Some are there on Olympus for what they can gain for themselves. Some . . . may grow into their roles. But I doubt that all of them will stay to attend on Hera forever. Even our sister may one day wish for something different.”

“That’s true,” Agnippe assented. “But it’s a little different, isn’t it? Queen Hera must have more than three dozen handmaidens. The norns . . .”

“. . . will just have me,” finished Nerine.

Agnippe snorted. “You’ll never be a ‘just’ anything,” she said.

Nerine laughed. “Why, thank you!”

They hung in the water, silent for a moment, the golden dapples on the spring’s floor shifting below them.

“I see your point,” Nerine admitted. “I know nålbindning and embroidery. I am proficient with a ground loom.” She glanced at her sister. Was she revealing too much? Would Agnippe follow up with awkward questions?

No, Agnippe was merely listening – intently – interested in where Nerine was going with this, not worrying about details such as how her sister had learned to use a ground loom.

“I am careful and neat. But the norns will be teaching me . . . more than I can well imagine.” She shook her head. Weaving was one thing. Weaving fate? Something wholly beyond her experience. “If I were going to them with the intention to leave, I would be wronging them. But, Agnippe” – her voice cracked, ever so slightly – “I don’t think I will sort myself out for . . . years. If ever.”

Sudden strain shadowed Agnippe’s eyes.

“I believe I’ll be in Scandia for . . . quite some time.” Nerine squeezed Agnippe’s hand – still in hers – again. She hated to see her sister looking so worried for her and injected a jolly tone to her words. “I promise I’ll come visit you! And . . .” more seriously “. . . I do think that weaving fate with the norns is right for me. For now, even if not for ever.”

Agnippe nodded more slowly. “I think I see,” she said. “I just wish . . . you had an easier current to swim.”

Nerine sighed again, then became brisk. “So do I!”

They laughed together.

It was good – so good – to understand and be understood, to connect at depth with a friend – who also happened to be a sister.

* * *

To purchase and read Fate’s Door: Amazon

For another chapter cut from Fate’s Door, Eilidh and the Olympians, see:
Update on Fate’s Door