Wednesday, July 12, 2017


I decided that the first book, Apprentice in the Wild, needs a prologue.

You see, chapter one begins with Abanoub looking out the window and thinking, Something has happened. That's because he is a seer, and so he knows things before other people do. The something that happened was the assassination of King Peada of Mercia, but as written, it will be about nine chapters before that's established.

So, prologue. Tell the story of the assassination in the prologue, then segue to chapter one, where Abanoub looks out the window and thinks, Something has happened.

It makes sense to me. I was hoping to surprise the reader with the story of the assassination, but I think there's something to be said for letting the reader know up front what happened, and then watch Abanoub discover the truth for himself.

I think the book works either way. If an editor tells me to drop the prologue, I could agree to that with no more than the usual amount of temper tantrum. I've tried doing some online reading and it seems the internet has a lot of hate for prologues. Go figure. They're not essential; not every novel needs a prologue. But as a reader, I often find they're an interesting way to get into the story.

I'm going to think about this some more. I may write at greater length on the subject of prologues later at my other place.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Second Book, More Characters

I haven't done much on The Sorcerer's Apprentice in the past week, because I was busy with another project. But I'm getting going on the second book, The Return of the King, and I'm already seeing that it's going to be quite different from the first. The first book focuses on the story of how Abanoub and Wulfhere meet, and their developing relationship. Most romances have the characters get to know each other, then fall in love, then have sex. In Apprentice in the Wild, the order is...different.

In The Return of the King, the cast of characters expands considerably, as Wulfhere prepares to take back his kingdom. He collects twelve Angle warriors to be his housecarls, a bodyguard and retinue who will aid him in his fight, in return for the honors they will receive after he is King. I'm trying to introduce the housecarls one at a time (or at least no more than 2-3 at a time) to give the reader a chance to get to know them one by one. And it's on me to make them different enough that the reader won't confuse them and they will remain distinct people even when they travel around in a group.

I'm using the term "housecarl," even though it's an anachronism, as the word doesn't come into use in England for a few centuries yet. But "retinue" is too French. I think in this period they were called gesiths, but I'm reluctant to use the term, as it is likely to be too unfamiliar to the reader. Not to mention it creates inappropriate Star Wars associations.

As Wulfhere assembles his housecarls, it may cause some trouble for Abanoub. Good Angle warriors are likely to see no need for their King to rely on a foreigner when they're around. Wulfhere may pick up some Pict allies during his sojourn in Pictland, too. We'll have to see.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Crossing the Stream

When I hear the phrase "crossing the stream," Bill Murray's voice immediately sounds in my head. "Excuse me, Egon, you said crossing the streams was bad."

Yeah, it's been a while since I posted here. But work on The Sorcerer's Apprentice continues apace. I attended Mythmoot IV in Leesburg, VA earlier this month, and I read a scene from Apprentice in the Wild. All in all, I thought it went really well. The audience was receptive, and people still wanted to talk to me about it the next day.

The scene I read involves a party, including Abanoub, venturing into the Wild in search for Wulfhere. The "border" of the Wild is an enchanted stream they have to cross. I meant this bit as a tribute to J.R.R. Tolkien and The Hobbit, where there is also a crossing of an enchanted stream. My characters want to cross the stream without touching the water, and, as in The Hobbit, one of them falls in and is changed by the experience. Although that's where the similarity ends. My character, unlike Bombur, does not go into an enchanted sleep. It's more complicated than that.

So I felt encouraged by the reception the scene got. Apprentice in the Wild, the first book in the trilogy, is now more or less complete, and weighs in at 113,000 words. I'm three chapters into the second book, The Return of the King, or 15,000 words. Do you suppose they'll let me keep that title?

Thursday, August 25, 2016

A Writer's Guide to Yes and No

So, thinking about how to write about seventh-century Anglo-Saxons raises questions about two simple words you would think no writer would need advice on: yes and no. But if you are writing out of your own time and place, you do need to be careful about what you do with these words. A few thoughts:

Modern English uses yes and no more often, I think, than did our ancestors in the past, and more so than speakers of other languages. In today's global village, where English is used so heavily as a second language, it seems this trait of English is leaking into other languages. I think modern speakers of Spanish, say, use and no more often than they used to.

Some languages get by perfectly well with no words at all that correspond to our yes and no. Finnish, for instance.  Classical Latin did not have words for yes and no. These languages get by just by repeating the verb. For instance:

Has he left?
He has left.
He has not left.

So if you are writing a story set in ancient Rome, you can help convey the feel of being in a different culture at a different time by not using yes or no to answer questions. And, as I say, if your story is set in a foreign country with a different language, or especially in the past, you can help convey that by omitting yes and no, or at least minimizing the use of them.

In my case, with The Sorcerer's Apprentice, I have all but removed yes and no from the manuscript. I do global searches from time to time to sift out cases when I used them without thinking, which I sometimes do. But the Anglo-Saxon language did have words for yes and no, so it needn't be a hard and fast rule. There are times when you really want to use yes or no because the character is being emphatic, and that's all right. Although they said yes and no less often back then, the times when they did use them, it was to be emphatic.

But the other tricky thing is that the Anglo-Saxons actually had four words: yes, no, aye, and nay. So if you're writing in old or middle English, you really need to know how to use all four. Wikipedia has an article on yes and no that can help you. Basically, if the question is affirmative, you use aye and nay. If the question is negative, you use yes and no. For instance:

Has he left yet?
Aye, he has left.
Nay, he has not left.

Hasn't he left yet? (Or maybe, Has he not left yet? has a better period feel.)
Yes, he has left.
No, he has not left yet.

So there you have it. I'll bet hat's a lot more words of explanation on how to use yes and no than you ever thought would be necessary.

What do you think? Have I got it right?

(Lots of good work on the project. I'm up to about 110,000 words.)

(Cross-posted at

Sunday, August 14, 2016

More on Words

I've been thinking more about word choice, and I've decided I haven't beaten this dead horse enough, so let me say some more.

As I've said, one of the glories of the English language is that there are often three (or more) different ways to say something, Anglo-Saxon, French, and Greco-Latin. Each one has its own distinct color. Or flavor, if you like.

This is something that all writers need to pay attention to in their own work, even if they are not writing epic fantasy novels set in Dark Age England. Because the colors are going to work for you (or against you), so you need to understand them.

Greco-Latin verbiage is technical, bureaucratic, and polysyllabic. This language can communicate with great precision, which is why scientists and academics and the educated frequently employ it. The difficulty inherent in using this language is that it can feel abstract and colorless. And though it is precise language, its very technicality facilitates confusion. Audiences can be misdirected by this language, and its very sense of sophistication can be used to induce the credulous to conclude that important ideas have been expressed, when in fact the language is basically empty of content.

French words lend themselves to express beauty, artistry, vision. It is the language of grace and balance, a ballet of letters that can touch all the pleasures and mysteries of experience. French words lend themselves to poetry. They are the music of the soul.

Anglo-Saxon speech is short, punchy, and earthy. The words are crisp. They show meaning without bloat. They are words of feeling. Words of love and hate. Words of life and death. Blunt, hard words that make sharp thoughts and quick deeds.

Did you see what I did there? Ha, ha, yes. I am so clever. I did the thing I was talking about while I was talking about it. But I think even in these hastily constructed and self-conscious sentences, you can see what I'm driving at. Note too that I constructed more complex sentences to go with the more complex language, and simple sentences that go with the simple words. The longer sentences are sentences of mood and contemplation. The short, punchy sentences are sentences of action and passion.

(I am now 107,000 words into this project. I am no longer sure whether I have two long books or three short ones. Who knows? Maybe three long ones by the time I'm done. I've decided to just go ahead and write the damn first draft already, and worry about structure later.)

Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Other Protagonist

I'm setting this novel, at least the beginning, in the year AD 656. Why 656, you ask? Well, in the year 656, some interesting stuff happened.

And that brings me to Wulfhere. After Easter of 656, Prince Wulfhere is heir to the crown of Mercia, his elder brother Peada having been murdered with the connivance of his wife, and having left this world childless.

By the way, does it strike you as odd that Wulfhere's father is named Penda and his older brother is named Peada, while he is named Wulfhere. Wulfhere is totally an Anglo-Saxon name, by the way. The first time I saw it, I guessed it meant "wolf lord," as in Wolfherr, in modern German. But I was wrong. That's a shame. I would love to be able to say the guy is named "Wolf Lord." Oh, well.

No, Wulfhere is cognate with the modern German Wolfheer. That means "Wolf army." What a name. Jamie over at the British History Podcast says it sounds like a name some online gamer would come up with for himself. (It would inevitably be a "him.") Any confusion you may feel about this should be cleared up when I tell you that "wulf" (wolf) is one of the 57 Anglo-Saxon words for "warrior" or "fighter." Anglo-Saxons have lots of words for fighter for the same reason that the Inuit have a lot of words for snow (actually a bit of a myth): because it's how they spent their lives.

Although this has nothing to do with my novel, I can't help but notice how different (and un-Anglo-Saxon) the names "Penda" and "Peada" are. They sound Welsh to me, and my research backs me up on this. Why Mercian Angle royals would be giving their sons Welsh names is a bit of a mystery, and even more so that they would name their first son "Peada," and then follow up with a thoroughly Anglo-Saxon name for the second son. (Unless I can think up a good rationale for that within my novel. Hm. Have to give that some thought.)

But, unless I come up with something clever there, that's a side point. In the novel, it is 656, King Peada has just been murdered, and the disappearance of Prince Wulhere launches the story.

(I have finished the first book of what is now certainly going to be a trilogy. It's about 80,000 words long, and I am shopping it to agents. Time to get cracking on the second book!)

Friday, March 4, 2016

Choosing the Words

Well, I discussed this Anglo-Saxon word choice thing with The Wife since my previous post, and she said, more or less, "Oh, I hate reading books written like that."

That took me aback. I asked her what the problem was. As she began to explain, I realized that what she was reacting against was stilted, pseudo-Elizabethan English such as Thou hast prevailed for the nonce, rapscallion, but upon my oath, thy victory shall be short-lived. Um, no. That's not what I mean, and I hope no one else thinks that.

Here's an example of what I do mean. I was doing some revision work on the project recently, and I came across a sentence where I had written that one of the characters had improved something. Improved is a word with Latin roots, and so I should not have used it there. The idea is to replace improved with a proper Anglo-Saxon word.

What would an Anglo-Saxon say there? What word would Tolkien have used there? I have to admit that I wracked my brain over this for a while, probably longer than I should have. Now, there are times when there simply is no good choice, and you're stuck with using a French or a Latin/Greek word. Even Tolkien got stuck like that sometimes. But neither do I want to use some obsolete or archaic word (like nonce in the above example). I'm not 100% opposed to using archaisms in my story. A few of them, sprinkled here and there, might help the story feel more real. But it's important to use them sparingly. Use too many and they begin to call attention to themselves, or worse; the reader starts tripping over unfamiliar words and is taken out of the story. That, I suppose, is what The Wife was objecting to.

So what I'm looking for is a word still in use in modern English that is Anglo-Saxon in origin and means improved. Call that Plan A. Plan B is to go ahead and use improved. It's not a terrible word. Most readers will ride right by it and not notice that it's a little out of place in the story. Of course, I absolutely have to avoid any word that's entirely anachronistic. Like okay, for instance, which is ubiquitous in modern English but would be jarringly out of place in a story set in the seventh century. But improved? I can get away with it, if I need to.

Improved means "made better." What would be the Anglo-Saxon way of saying that? Have you guessed yet? I am a little embarrassed to admit how long it took me to come up with the answer. And you will be, too, if you haven't already gotten it. It's staring at you right now. See it? Bettered. That's it!

In modern English, better is almost exclusively used as an adjective. (A comparative, if you want to get technical.) But it is also a verb and a noun. (When I say noun, I mean in the sense of "in the presence of your betters" not in the sense of "a person who places a bet.") Regardless, I think it's fair to say that most any native speaker of English is aware that better can be used as a verb, although it's a subtle enough trick that it might trip up a non-native speaker, even a very good one.

Using one word, better, as a noun and a verb and an adjective is distinctively Anglo-Saxon, and yet I can use it without causing the reader to become confused or taking the reader out of the story. That's because we all have a larger receptive vocabulary than our expressive vocabulary. In other words, we all know and understand many more words than we use in everyday communication. Those are the words I'm after.