Monthly Archives: January 2012

Evoking Mood









I thought it was time for a writing prompt. Here is a great exercise to do, courtesy of Janet Burroway and John Gardner, that you can share with a writing friend.

In five minutes, write a description of one of the following settings. Do not mention the circumstances or emotion.

  • A description of a barn as seen by an old man or woman whose son has just been killed in a war.
  • A description of a lake as seen by someone who has just committed a murder.
  • A description of a grocery store as seen by a mother or father of three small children. The parent is away from the children for the first time in a week.

Read the descriptions with at least one other person. Readers need not guess the circumstances. The point is to give feedback on the mood evoked in the description and to identify the details that reflect that mood.

As a follow-up, write one paragraph to fit a story-in-progress in which the main character’s emotion or mood is reflected in his or her perception of a particular setting.

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THE ORACLE by William J. Broad

William J. Broad’s THE ORACLE is a fascinating look at the science behind the Delphic Oracle. Blending ancient history, recent modern history and the scientific disciplines of anthropology, geology and archeology, the author pieces together a fascinating account of what may have caused the Oracle at Delphi to be so well-regarded throughout the ancient world, that extra something that seemed to lie behind those Delphic prophecies. The priestess would sit on a metal tripod, her legs dangling, and that tripod was positioned over an X-like fault in the limestone bedrock through which seeped ethylene, a sweet-smelling gas that in small doses can cause a trance-like state, that quickly wears off with the entranced person remembering little afterwards.

In this scientific age, it is easy to feel that the explanation just given explains everything about what being a Delphic Oracle was like. It’s easy to think that she was equivalent to a glue-sniffer, or someone high on mescalen or some other substance.

But that would miss the point about what the women took themselves to be doing as they sat on that tripod. They had prepared carefully for the event (which took place once a month during the warmer part of the year). They had fasted. They had gone through various purification rituals. And as they sat on that tripod, in that darkened room, with a laurel held in one hand and a small bowl of water in the other, they expected that the god Apollo would reveal himself to them, and give sage advice to whoever might appear.

Strangely enough, it mostly seemed to work. It probably helped that the women chosen for the task were well-educated and intelligent, so that in their semi-inebriated state they were able to reply in classical hexameters. It was probably necessary to have the priests of Apollo hovering nearby should something go wrong. But what I am trying to say here is that it is unfair to dismiss these women as akin to glue-sniffers. People sniffing glue are not usually planning to meet the god Apollo and use his wise counsel for the benefit of society.

What is key here, is what people’s expectations are. Because, as I am fond of reminding my friends, we all possess an extraordinarily powerful machine in our heads. And expectations filter experience. Expectations can turn a tawdry quest for a high into something profound that still resonates thousands of years after the event. And William J. Broad is careful to spell out that point at the end of his wonderful book. Five stars.


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Tips & Tidbits from the Internet

Here are a couple of things that might interest you:

Global e-book awards needs judges. If you have a little extra time and would like to get some exciting new e-books to read for free, then please contact  Dan Poynter and his team at

Poets and Writers has a great database of contests for every kind of medium, from poetry and short stories to novels. To sign up for free e-mail alerts, go to

Have a wonderful week!

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Filed under How to Publish Your Novel, Promoting Yourself

Have you heard of International Book Awards, Jeffrey Keen or JPX Media?

The oddest thing happened to me recently.

I heard about the Best Books Award and so I wrote an email to verifying that they accepted e-books, and asking how I should send the file of THWARTED QUEEN.

I got a reply from someone called Jeffrey Keen, of JPX Media Group, USA Book News and International Book Awards, telling me to email the pdf of the novel along with the entry form to that email address.  I paid my entry fee online ($69) via Paypal, and replied to the email with my docs. A day went by, then the message bounced back.

So I re-sent it back to Jeffrey, with a brief note explaining that it hadn’t worked out the first time, so I was trying again.

It bounced back again. That was odd, because my first message got through, so why wasn’t this working? I decided that the site had gone down, but surely it would be back up now. I re-sent it.

Yes, you guessed it. It bounced back again. So I did a Google search on JPX media and acquired the following email: I resubmitted.

Guess what? It bounced back again a day later. So I poked around on the website and clicked on the “email us” link and got

I resubmitted.

What do you think happened just now? That’s right. It bounced back. I checked my Paypal account, and naturally the money is gone. I would contact them by phone, but try as I might I can’t find a phone number for their address, which is JPX Media Group, Attn: IBA 2012, P.O. Box 69408, Los Angeles, CA 90069 OR JPX Media Group, Attn: IBA 2012
9663 Santa Monica Blvd., Suite 187, Beverly Hills, California 90210.

If any of you have heard about IBA, Jeff Keen, JPX media or Best Books Award, please drop a comment in the comments box. I’ve just contacted my local NWU office to let them know about this possible scam.

You may want to add this to your list of folks you DON’T do business with.

Have a wonderful weekend!






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This is a magical book. Author Charles Stein takes us on a journey into the heart of the Eleusinian Mysteries, a spiritually transformative process that culminated in a rite at temple in Eleusis, a village near Athens after a week-long festival dedicated to Persephone and her mother Demeter.

The Mysteries were famous in the ancient world and mentioned by many people. However, the initiates who went through this process were sworn to secrecy as to the exact nature of the experience, so it has been hard to reconstruct what may have happened. Using ancient sources and modern scholarship, Stein has attempted to penetrate the veil of secrecy.

The mysteries were popular because they promised relief from the terrors of the afterlife, pictured in the ancient Greek mind as the terrors of Hades. Each initiate had to undergo an eighteen-month process of preparation, which culminated at the festival dedicated to Persephone and Demeter, which was held every year for thousands of years. In this festival, the initiates participated in dietary restrictions. On the last day of the week-long festival they marched the 14 miles from Athens to Eleusis. Along the way, they were each given a potion to drink which may have contained chemicals similar to  LSD. On arriving at the temple there, they engaged in sacred dancing and were then ushered into the temple to witness the rite, which took place at night by the light of torches. It is not know exactly what happened then, but the whole experience ended with the “appearance” of Persephone.

To those of you who view the world primarily in scientific and rationalistic terms, this book may make your eyes roll.  But if you are looking for something else, such as an evocation of what it may actually have been like to be there, then this book contains some wonderful descriptions to help you picture it in your mind’s eye. Five stars.


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Tips from the Internet: Chats and an unpublished MSS by Charlotte Bronte







Here are some chats you might be interested in. To use, you have to download Tweetdeck at

  • #litchat (create a column in Tweetdeck by searching #litchat). This runs from 4-5pm Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
  • #yalitchat (create a column in Tweetdeck by searching #yalitchat) starts 9pm on Wednesdays
  • #Writersroad (create a column in Tweetdeck) starts at 6pm on Mondays.

From Two Nerdy History Girls: An unpublished MSS by Charlotte Bronte is worth at least two hundred thousand pounds, according to Sotheby’s. To read more, as well as to see a wonderful photo of the miniature MSS, click here. For Two Nerdy History Girls blog, go to: It has all kinds of wonderful historical tidbits.

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It is heartbreaking to read about the destruction of an attractive and lively personality. Yet that is what Brigitte Hamann’s biography of Empress Elisabeth of Austria does. Titled THE RELUCTANT EMPRESS, Ms. Hamann’s book charts the downfall of Elisabeth (more commonly known by her nickname “Sisi”) from a carefree 15-year-old who caught the heart of the Emperor Franz-Joseph, to a teenager whose children were taken from her by her jealous mother-in-law, to a twenty-two year old who fled the Viennese court and her marriage because after six years of marriage, she became so ill, that people feared for her life.

Unable to live with a husband who was dominated by his mother, and kowtowed to a stifling regimented Spanish etiquette, Sisi tried to find something to do with her life.

In the 1860s, she agitated for the parity of the Hungarian crown with the Austrian. In 1867, her efforts were crowned with a coronation ceremony in Budapest.

In the 1870s, she dropped politics and moved onto horse-racing, becoming one of the most outstanding equestrians in the world.

In the 1880s, she focused on poetry, writing several hundred poems, most of which were not published until after her death (they were too subversive). She stopped writing poetry when her only son, the Archduke Rudolf, committed suicide in 1889.

In 1890, her youngest child married, giving her even less reason to stay in Vienna. And so she wandered, from place to place, never finding a home of her own.

For those of us who remember the trials and tribulations of Princess Diana this makes chilling reading. Like Diana, Elisabeth suffered from anorexia. Like Diana, she was a perfectionist who cultivated a cult based on her own extraordinary beauty. LIke Diana, she became an unhappy woman who never seemed to find her footing in the world. So when Elisabeth was assassinated in 1898, her death was a relief.  Birgitte Hamann writes:

“This sensational act of violence in Geneva was a deliverance for a deeply unhappy, emotionally disturbed and physically debilitated woman whose parting hardly left a gap.”

What a tragedy for such a deeply gifted, and sensitive personality. Five stars.

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Life in the Past Lane wins the Best History Historical Fiction Blog for 2011

Please join me in congratulating Jessica James for winning the Historical Novel Blog’s People’s Choice contest for the Best Blog of 2011. Many members voted and the winner was…LIFE IN THE PAST LANE!


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Making minor characters interesting

It is so easy to overlook the minor characters in your fiction. But you miss a great opportunity to make your work more interesting if you just use them as placeholders. Compare the following two excerpts to see what I mean:

  1. After a minute, the door opened and Mrs. Celia Stephenson stood there. “Good morning, Miss Violet,” she said. “Your mother is not up yet. Would you like to wait, while I knock on her door?”
  2. Mrs. Celia Stephenson, Mother’s landlady, opened the door a chink, revealing one well-shaped blue eye surrounded by mascara. “Your mother isn’t up yet,” she remarked, swinging the door open while her lips curved into a smile. “Would you like me to knock?”

Which seems more vivid to you?

Here is another example. One of my minor characters is a priest. Originally, I had decided to make him homely, prayerful and totally supportive of his brother, the major character. Then I went looking for images for my main characters, faces that I could pin their names onto. (I went online and searched Google images). I had a brainwave. Suppose I made the priest even more handsome than his dishy brother (the love interest in the novel), suppose I gave him a faint scar that ran down his cheek, and suppose I gave him a faint connection to the Chicago Outfit (the precursor to the mob).

What do you think? Which version of the priest would you rather read about? What do you think of the image of Raoul Bova, the Italian actor? Too handsome for a priest??

Do you have any craft tips you’d like to share? If so, drop a message in the comment box.

Have a wonderful week!


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Mary Sharratt’s novel, DAUGHTERS OF THE WITCHING HILL, is about an infamous witch trial held in 1612, in Lancaster England, in which seven women and two men were hanged for witchcraft.

Early seventeenth-century England was still reeling from the religious upheavals of the previous century in which Catholic and Protestant martyrs had been burned at stake. Now, the Puritans were in the ascendancy, and they were not kind to people who either were closet catholics, or engaged in practices that could be viewed as pagan. This was especially true of the King, James I, who believed that witches were ubiquitous and needed to be routed out.

Thus this tragedy, which centers on three women from the same family who, to greater or lesser degrees, could have been regarded as witches.

The grandmother, known as “Mother Demdike” was a so-called “cunning woman” who mostly provided medical care to her neighbors. Occasionally, she was prevailed upon to cast spells and even curses. Though nominally Protestant, she was part of an ancient tradition that reached back into the past well beyond the Catholic Christianity of the century before.

Her daughter Liza, also had powers, but became disinclined to use them.

The grand-daughter, seventeen-year-old Alizon, was fearful of using her powers.

A dear friend of this family was a well-born closet Catholic, who preferred to go to her death claiming that she was a witch, rather than have her son punished for her secret adherence to the Old Faith.

None of these nuances mattered to the authorities, however. Especially an ambitious local sheriff, who wanted to make his name and fortune by putting to death witches. Just as the King had commanded.

What makes this novel so wonderful is the way in which Ms. Sharratt manages to get into the head of her seventeenth-century characters, making us feel as superstitious, fearful and hungry as they. Five stars.

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