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Friday, June 28, 2013

Friday Fun- Free Rice

Hello! It's time for Friday Fun!
online game to end hunger
Do you want to have some fun, learn something and help others? 

Free Rice  allows you to do this. Pick a subject from vocabulary, literature, paintings, chemistry, geography, math and many others. For each correct answer you give, you will earn 10 grains of rice. After a few successful rounds, your rice will be a sizeable mound and be transformed into real rice which is donated to people in need. It's completely free. 

Happy Playing! 

My best to you all,

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Writer Wednesday- Ross King and The Judgement of Paris


It's time for "Writer Wednesday", when I discuss another writer and his or her book.

Today's subject is the Impressionists. Now, their paintings fill postcards, t-shirts, even umbrellas. When they first emerged in the 19th century, though, they were far from loved. Shunned by the establishment, they struggled for a place in the artistic world.

The rise of Impressionism is detailed in Ross King's, Judgement of Paris. More than just a fascinating piece of non-fiction, King has crafted a narrative that treats the painters as characters with engaging stories that the readers care about. He also includes considerable background history and its effects on the painters of the time.

In his book, King introduced me to Jean-Louis Ernest Meissonier, a painter who clung to realism with such exuberance that he built a train in his yard to travel alongside  a galloping horse and catch its features most realistically. Clearly an artistic genius, the rise of Impressionism replaced men such as Meissonier. His skilfully crafted horses and portraits of Napoleon fell away, as Napoleonic France was replaced by a modern vision at the end of the century.

The title conveys an effective literal meaning. The Salon, with its artistic authority, ruled over the careers of painters. The judgement, housed in Paris, made or broke their careers. But, the Greek story of "the judgement of Paris", the classical story that would have been best exposed by Classicists such as Meissonier, also seems to suggest a meaning for the title. In the contest of art, with its now ubiquitous popularity, Impressionism seems to be strongly holding the golden apple of who is fairest of them all. 

My best to you all,

Monday, June 24, 2013

Jane Austen and the Revolutionary Happily Ever After Ending

Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy

Few couples in literature are as well known- Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde, Anthony and Cleopatra- but their stories are tragedies. Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy get their happy ending and in giving it to them, Jane Austen took a bold step.

2005 Cinema Adaptation
Now, marrying for love, the heroine getting the guy and a happy ending of the couple together are thought of as expected, sometimes even cliché. But, for Jane Austen this was ground breaking, revolutionary. Jane Austen was allowing her heroines the fate that many real life characters (including Jane Austen herself) were not afforded. They were locked into the societal customs and dictates of the times. Matches were made based on status and money.

"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife."
So begins Pride and Prejudice. Before we are ever introduced to Elizabeth or to Mr. Darcy, we are confronted with the circumstances of the times. If a man has money, then he may seek a wife. Now, people chuckle at this line. They're amused by it, but I don't think that Jane was trying to be clever. I think that she was merely stating a fact.

"Darcy, as well as Elizabeth, really loved them; and they were both ever sensible of the warmest gratitude towards the persons who, by bringing her into Derbyshire, had been the means of uniting them."

These lines, considerably less well-known and quoted are how Pride and Prejudice end. I propose that they are far more radical than the opening lines that Jane penned. Love, gratitude, location and friends were the elements attributed to Elizabeth and Darcy's relationship. Now, they are commonplace, expected, but for Jane Austen and her readers, they were entirely new and unexpected.

My best to you all,

Friday, June 21, 2013

Friday Fun- A Midsummer Night's Dream

John Simmons (1823-1876), "Hermia and Lysander"
It's time for Friday Fun!

Today is the Summer Solstice, which means 2 things to me
1. the longest day of light in the year
2. Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream

In honor of the day, here's a couple of excerpts from the play.


    Over hill, over dale, 
    Thorough bush, thorough brier, 
    Over park, over pale, 
    Thorough flood, thorough fire, 
    I do wander everywhere, 
    Swifter than the moon's sphere; 
    And I serve the fairy queen, 
    To dew her orbs upon the green. 
    The cowslips tall her pensioners be: 
    In their gold coats spots you see; 
    Those be rubies, fairy favours, 
    In those freckles live their savours: 
    I must go seek some dewdrops here 
    And hang a pearl in every cowslip's ear. 
    Farewell, thou lob of spirits; I'll be gone: 
    Our queen and all our elves come here anon. 

(Act 2, Scene 1)

Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind;
And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.
(Act 1, Scene 1) 

Happy Midsummer Night!

My best to you all,

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Writer Wednesday- Shakespeare's Restless World


It's time for "Writer Wednesday", when I talk about another author and a book of his or hers.

To anyone who's read my blog, it's no secret that I like Shakespeare. Recently, I read an amazing book by Neil MacGregor: Shakespeare's Restless World. Neil MacGregor is the Director of the British Museum (a place that I wanted to camp out at for about a month when I visited!) He was previously the Director of the National Gallery in London, so he definitely knows his history and his art.

In his book, MacGregor explores Shakespeare's times through examining everyday objects and explaining their significance both to Shakespeare and to his audience. This is more than just a book about Shakespeare. It is a book about Elizabethan and early Stuart England. New explorations, trade routes with Europe and even the plague all figured into the understanding of the plays for the audiences at the Globe Theater. One particularly interesting segment talked about how priests concealed their outlawed religion as traveling cloth merchants. For more fascinating chapters, be sure to pick up a copy!

It is also a beautifully made book with full color illustrations (lots of them!) and thick paper. It conveys the heft of its subject well. With his love of metaphor, I think Shakespeare would approve.

My best to you all,

Monday, June 17, 2013

Mona Lisa: Literary Metaphor

Ah, the Mona Lisa. I have a funny story. When I saw the most famous painting in the world, I thought it was big. Why is this funny? Because everyone had told me how tiny it is, before I saw it. It is true that compared to Boticellli's Birth of Venus or The Nightwatch by Rembrandt, the Mona Lisa is considerably smaller but it wasn't the microscopic masterpiece that I was led to believe.

Rather than the size of the painting, though, I think she deserves to be looked at for another reason. She is symbolically lovely from a literary standpoint. She's approachable, mysterious, and there's more to her than originally meets the eye. That seems like a perfect recipe for a good book!

I also love the sfumato (shadowy setting) behind her. It serves to remind that the setting of a story is important, but that the characters should take center stage. 

My best to you all,

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Friday, June 14, 2013

Friday Fun- At the Medieval Table


It's time for Friday Fun! Have you ever wondered where the phrase "a good square meal" came from? Or how about, "the upper crust"?

These phrases are connected and come from the Medieval table. Pull up a stool, to a time before forks were used in Europe. Forks were first introduced from Byzantium (who acquired them from the Middle East) by the wife of the Doge of Venice in the 11th century, but it would be centuries before they became common at European dining tables.

Look down at your place setting at this Medieval table. You have no forks. Your beverage will most likely be some form of ale, regardless of your age. The waters were so polluted, that brewed beverages were the healthful solution. They were watered down, though, and so were much weaker than one might think.Tea, coffee, and even sugar have not yet entered European life.

Now, take a look at your plate. "What should I picture?" you might ask.
What your plate looks like is dictated by your social standing. If you're of high standing your plate will be metal. At the other end, if you're a lowly peasant you will be eating from a trencher. A trencher was formed from the bottom crust of the bread. You guessed it, the top crust was cut off and given to the nobility. Hence, they are the upper crust. If you're in the middle- a merchant or apprenticed to one, you eat off of a wooden plate. The plate is square in shape and thus you were eating, as you moved up in society from the peasant class, a good "square meal".

My best to you all,

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Walking through the pages of History- Maginot Line

Sutter's Mill, where gold was first discovered in California in 1848, is one of the first historic places I remember visiting as an eager elementary school student. Colonial Williamsburg is another such location. In both places history surged to life. To walk among the stones and roads where history really occurred ignited something in me. It made history accessible.

Americans at the Maginot Line in 1944
Photo from http://media.nara.gov/media/images/11/31/11-3045a.gif
That is one of the primary goals of historical fiction- making history touchable, alive, and vibrant (as I mentioned in Bringing Color to History).

The Maginot Line through the fields of Lorraine, in France, is another location where history sparked to life for me. The muskiness clung to my nose, the steps were steep, the lights were dim and history gripped me. Even my own eyes watered, not from the gases of a bygone era, but from the pollen-soaked fields surrounding me. Here, France struggled to maintain defensive control against a disconcerting neighbor who'd risen to aggression a handful of years before.

It is easy to think of the Maginot Line as a failure. It is presented as such. But, there's another side to the Maginot Line. Although the defensive structure, the fortified walls and gun turrets failed to protect France during 1940, in 1944 the Allies were able to advance against Germany with aid of the Maginot Line.The weapons and stockpiles of the Maginot Line were put into action by the Allied troops in the Lorraine and Alsace to halt the German offensive of "Operation Nordwind" (North Wind) in December 1944 and primarily January 1945. In truth, even in 1940, there was nothing wrong with the Maginot Line. Its defenses didn't break under Nazi bombardment. Instead, the aggressors employed a strategy that the French were not counting on. They surpassed the Maginot Line and advanced through the Ardennes Forest.

But, history is more than battles. It is more than defenses that failed or succeeded. Unlike the photographs we remember the events by, nothing is ever that black and white. To paint one group as defeated and another as victors minimizes the hurt and causalities that those who "won" returned with. Furthermore, it is too simplistic to determine that one group was bad. Were the Nazi atrocities horrible? Of course. But, not every soldier who wore that uniform followed that ideology. Some of the soldiers were not even German. Did you know, for example, that as the allies faced down the Nazis on the beaches of Normandy, some in the uniform were Russian or even Koreans, who'd been defeated by the Japanese and pressed into service?

To me, what matters is this- after a terrible nightmare of reality, freedom and liberty won. This came in many guises and means more than just the triumphant red, white and blue of French, American, and British flags flying alongside the Canadians and other allies. Some of the ways that freedom and liberty won include
1) The Nazis were stopped.
2) The majority of the world was free again- including the Germans who had also suffered.
3) Having faced such tragedy, advances were made to stop racism in the United States.

The Maginot Line, with its evocative meanings, deserves a second look. It is more than catastrophic defeat. Looking closer is demanded of something else as well: history. 

My best to you all,

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Writer Wednesday- that potato book club thing


I've decided to make Wednesdays "Writer Wednesday" where I'll talk about another writer. This past weekend, I read a book that I've been wanting to read for some time. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society charmed me. Because this is not a new book, much has already been written about it in terms of review. Rather than do that, I will say that it was a beautiful, sunny Friday and as I sat on the sandy beach reading I felt that my patch of shoreline wasn't all that different from where the characters of Guernsey resided.

I enjoyed the epistolary style and as I read more it became evident that Juliet was loved by her author, Mary Ann Shaffer. In being loved by her author, the character is immediately endearing to the readers as well. I always smile when I read other writers talk about their characters coming to them, asking to be written. I know exactly what they mean. And, it was abundantly clear to me that Mary Ann Shaffer knew such a thing as well; Juliet came to her and I am thankful that through the pages of a book on a sunny day, she came into my life as well.

My best to you all,

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Bringing Color to History

Historical Fiction infuses color into the black and white of the historic prologue. With historic events as the prologue to my stories, it is up to me to try to color them with authenticity, to bring the faded pages into vivid focus.
Budapest View from 1935
To the left is a photo of Budapest from 1935. It's charming and exciting, but the white and black (at least to me) makes it look distant, separate, and firmly stuck in the past. Farther down, I've posted a photo that I took from a trip to Budapest in 2010. It depicts the same places, but the colors rush out and invite the viewer in. I think that it can be tempting to think of the past as a land of black and white. For those that dwelt among past ages, it never was though. Theirs was a world of color, just as our own is now.

Budapest View from 2010; Photo by Megan

I'm passionate about color. Painting is one of the things I take part in, especially as a fresh new story is brewing in my mind. I also love to watch the sea as I'm getting to know my characters (well, always really, but it does help characters get chatty). And as you see in the photo to the right, I also love to take photos. They help me when I'm trying to recreate a scene, as I pour out the image from my mind for you to see in my stories.

One of the best tools to help create a vivid image is research. As I mentioned yesterday, writing means learning. Research comes in the guise of books, documentaries, articles, past classes and primary sources. Other research that helps a story come alive is more personal in nature- how music sounds, how a cake tastes or how the sun paints the sky in a thousand shades are all little details that can turn a black and white view of history into a vivid and full color story.

What are some historical fiction books that are especially vibrant to you? What helps you feel that you are truly part of the story and living it in color?

My best to you all,

Monday, June 10, 2013

Past is Prologue- Beyond the Prologue

Welcome! Here begins "Past is Prologue". 

When deciding on a name for my blog, I was given pause. I think that titles for books are at times easier.  Then, it hit me. I write (prologue) historical fiction (past). Also, "What's past is prologue" happens to be from The Tempest by William Shakespeare- one of my favorite plays by him. (My other favorites are A Midsummer Night's Dream and Much Ado About Nothing. I completed my goal of reading through his plays at the beginning of last year, in case anyone's interested.)

When people hear that I'm a writer, they say, "So, what do you write?"
Historical Fiction.
I generally get an enthusiastic response. People like history. Even, non-historians seem to often be drawn to it. There's seemingly something for everyone- intrigue, mystery, costumes, an unfamiliar turn of words that leaves us utterly charmed and lots of adventure.

Perhaps, one of the greatest adventures we can undertake is learning. I love to learn. I used to skip home from kindergarten and tell my parents all about my day. True Story. And while I no longer skip-- often anyway, I still love to learn. This is one of the best parts of being an author. Writing means constantly learning new things. 

My degree is history-focused international relations. So much of how the world relates today is based upon decisions and events of the past. "Past is Prologue", if you will.

So, why do I write historical fiction? I found myself thinking about this during the past week, as the 69th anniversary of D-Day was commemorated.
Here's my answer- History is so important. Knowing, learning, remembering is the only way to gain and maintain real freedom. It is true that I was primarily thinking of Normandy at the time when I thought that, but it is true. History is important.
Why do I write historical fiction? In short, because it matters.
It matters to me, it matters to my characters who enter my life and ask me to write their story, and I hope it matters to you.

My best to you all,