Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Problem of Research....

One of the questions those contemplating writing historical novels usually ask is, “How much time do you spend on research and how much should you include in a work of fiction?” There is no typical answer. The audience, type of novel and how much a writer already knows about a given subject will determine research hours.  
Elizabeth Chadwick, a writer of medieval English novels, clearly spent quite a bit of time researching the food, clothing, political climate, customs, expressions and language of the period for her first novel. Presumably, she spent less time researching her second, third and subsequent novels all set around the same time, hence, the benefits of sticking to what you know.
Then there’s the strategy of going so far back into prehistory where so little is known that you can write just about anything you want, within the bounds of credibility, of course, hence, Jean Auel and the CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR series.
          If the characters are actual people from history, more care must be taken to get them right which is why many historical romance authors create fictional protagonists with real people having small, walk-in parts. That isn’t to say that license can’t be used with actual historical figures as long as it’s indicated in some way, usually in the forward. This prevents history buffs, who know more about certain subjects than the author, from writing scathing reviews because Margaret Fitzgerald’s hair was brown, not red, or Mary Queen of Scots never said anything of the sort because she could only speak French and was allergic to lavender. Joan Wolf does a wonderful job in her King Arthur book when she throws legend to the winds and creates a young, compassionate Morgan who falls in love with the sexiest, equally young, King Arthur ever created, and he with her.
The best piece of advice I've ever heard when it comes to research is: note everything you could use but include only ten percent of it.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Common misconceptions of Ireland

      Common misconceptions of Ireland: When people think of Ireland, they call up images of rolling hills with hedges separating a patchwork of fields in various shades of green, thick mists, silver lakes, thatched cottages with peat smoke escaping from chimneys, twisting one-lane roads, friendly pubs, inebriated men in caps who want to buy pints all around, women who drink tea, bland food and mile after mile (actually kilometers) of emptiness.
     The new Ireland, the Ireland of the European Union, is quite different. Ireland is crowded, so crowded that traffic clogs up the roads leading into the villages and modern, multi-lane bypasses alleviate the congestion around the towns and cities. Most of the population is under thirty-five and men rarely wear caps. They drink carefully because of no-tolerance laws and because education and prosperity have given them opportunity unheard of by previous generations. The food is delicious and varied, although expensive by American standards, and because of the water, the coffee has a delicious smoky flavor without the slightest hint of bitterness. Corned beef isn’t common, but bacon and cabbage is, a kind of bacon that bears no resemblance to the thin, crispy, fat-layered bacon we order with our eggs and pancakes. Irish bacon is back bacon, lean, tender and flavorful. For a treat, perhaps St. Patrick’s Day, place a bacon order with Tommy Maloney’s of New York. Cook it with cabbage, boiled potatoes, carrots and turnip. You might not give up corned beef entirely, but you’ll definitely appreciate the difference and you’ll certainly have a more authentic meal.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

A Writer's Life

     People often ask me if I worry about people using my ideas, my words and my titles in their own writing. It makes me chuckle to think that my words are so profound others would want to call them their own. It's flattering but the answer is no, I don't worry. 
     For the record: titles, ideas and names are not copyrighted. I suppose if you plan on calling your newly opened restaurant MacDonald's, you might have a problem, but you can certainly name your child John Lennon or Ringo Starr and you may open a horse stable or a hardware shop and call it MacDonald's. You can also create a rags to riches story about a chamber maid who marries a prince or a girl who falls in love with a beast. You might even get away with borrowing a phrase or two as long as it is common enough to be dubbed a cliche. No one even blinks when confronted by familiarities like, "it's raining cats and dogs," or "rode hard and put away wet."  What you cannot do is copy another writer's words, phrases, paragraphs and chapters. It is illegal. We call it plagiarism.
     Copyrighting published material is usually taken care of by your publishing house. Authors who self-publish may purchase ISBN numbers from the Library of Congress. The number comes with copyright instructions and protection. But the fact of the matter is, as soon as a thought moves from your mind to a piece of paper or to the computer screen, it becomes your own and no one else may legally claim it. So... keep writing and slan abhale.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Cystic Fibrosis in Ireland

On a sobering note: throughout Ireland there are billboards advertising support for cystic fibrosis. CF, an inherited disease, shows up as a sticky substance that attacks the lungs, becomes debilitating in early adulthood and terminal somewhere in the mid-thirties. One in twenty-five Caucasians in the United States carries the gene. Only when both parents are carriers does a child have a chance of inheriting cystic fibrosis. Because carriers are symptom free, Americans aren’t aware of how prevalent this genetic trait is.
In Ireland, the numbers are staggering. This small country of five million has the highest percentage of carriers, and infected as well as multiple children infected in a single family, on the planet. One in every four people is a carrier. Seven percent of the population is symptomatic. More and more are affected as the population increases. Genetic testing for the trait is routine for obvious reasons. Coughing, colds that linger, salty-tasting skin are all symptoms of CF. At this time there is no cure. The lifespan of those with disease has increased over the years due to awareness and the benefits of modern medicine. Donations to the Cystic Fibrosis Association of Ireland are welcomed. 

Saturday, October 2, 2010

An Irish Dessert

Banoffee pie is the most incredible dessert I've ever tasted and I'm the kind of person who leaves plenty of room for dessert. A delicious layer of thick caramel sits on biscuit base topped with bananas and cream.  If you can't find digestive biscuits (I buy mine at Stater Brothers Grocery Store in the International aisle) use graham crackers. It won't detract from the flavor at all. This recipe serves 8-10 or, if you truly don't care about ever seeing an Irish size 10 again, slice it into 6 decadent servings and enjoy. I truly believe you can't really trust a person who never orders dessert.


3 1/2 oz of butter
9 oz of digestive biscuits (These are really cookies and you'll need 3/4 of the package)


2 cans of sweetened condensed milk


4 small bananas or 3 large
cocoa powder for dusting
8 oz of heavy cream, whipped.

Begin with the base. In a large saucepan, melt 3 1/2 oz. of butter and stir in the crushed biscuits. Press into the base and partly up the sides of a 9 - 10 inch pie pan. Cool in the refrigerator while preparing the caramel.

(This is the unbelievable part.) Fill a Dutch oven or a large pan with enough water to cover the cans of sweetened condensed milk. Place the cans, unopened (you might want to peel off the paper but it eventually comes off anyway so I leave it alone) into the water and bring to a boil. (I know you shouldn't really boil sealed cans, but do it anyway.) Lower heat and simmer for 2 1/2 hours, adding water to keep the level even. Cool enough to handle the cans. Open and remove the caramel. It will be thick, but spreadable, and golden brown. Cool for 1 1/2 hours. Slice the bananas and arrange over the caramel. Top with whipped cream, remaining bananas and cocoa powder. Truly delicious