ANNA BELFRAGE

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Is freezing in a garret a prerequisite?

Chatterton 1856 by Henry Wallis 1830-1916There is this rather romanticised (and antiquated) idea that great art is created by young (mostly) male wannabees who laugh cruel fate in the face while they continue with their creative endeavours, no matter chillblains and empty stomachs, ice-cold draughts and ragged clothes. Our literary hero hoards his candle stumps so as to light his nightly progress with his roman à clef,  but no sooner does dawn tinge the night skies pink but he blows out the little flame, preferring to strain his eyesight to wasting any more of his artificial light source.

Such young men write about PAIN. They write about anguish and despair, about setting off to brave the world alone. Their world is harsh, their female protagonists are generally peripheral, and all that introverted focus results in a rather heavy read – which is why said writer is languishing in a garret to begin with. Now, not all garret-bound writers have written unreadable books. In Sweden, we have our own most brilliant if somewhat depressive and misogynist August Strindberg, who rose from humble beginnings to become a writer of quite some well-deserved renown (and doubtful repute, what with all his women). Great art has undoubtedly arisen from strained circumstances, but is it a necessity to suffer to write/compose/paint masterpieces? No, I would say – rather emphatically. What is required to create masterpieces is talent, perseverance and inspiration.

Irises-Vincent_van_GoghCreating masterpieces does not always result in monetary compensation. Take Van Gogh, for example. Did he ever enjoy the monetary fruits of his labour? Nope. His painting of irises may be one of the more highly valued works of arts in the world, but dear old Vincent spent his latter years in mental confusion (hence the ear business, one assumes) and does not seem to have reaped much material reward, despite increasing recognition of his genius towards the latter years of his (short) life.

Also, there’s the interesting little fact that masterpieces are generally defined by a selected few – an intellectual elite, if you will – and may therefore not necessarily reflect the tastes of the broad masses – and if you want to become rich through your creative efforts, then you had better appeal to the masses. To be brief, one can conclude that while writing masterpieces does not exclude material success, neither does it guarantee the writer will be rolling in money. If you write to earn your living, there may therefore be a need of a certain level of… umm… well, what can we call it? “Prostitution”? (Oh dear; hearts go all a-flutter, don’t they?)

aston_martin_db9-pic-12758Writers who are looking for high level income should choose genre carefully. Crime is a safe bet. Silent male hunk (think Reacher) driven by an inner moral compass but uninterested in cluttering up his life with emotional baggage as he goes about saving the world always seems to sell – mostly to men, who probably nourish a dream of living the simple life and being heroes at least once in their lives. Another safe bet is romance – but here the sub-genres are a veritable tangle to work your way through, and some are more successful than others, so do the research before deciding on whether your male protagonists will prance about in silk hose and breeches, a painted mouche on their cheek and a powdered wig atop their head, or slouch about looking delightful in an Aston Martin DB9 and cashmere (Aaaaaaahhhh, yes…)

The alternative to prostitution – a.k.a. writing what you think the market may want –  is to write what you feel passionate about and to hell with remuneration. In my experience, this leads to much better writing. Much. Okay, so there may only be a minority of people around who want to read about the Sherpa who got on the wrong bus and ended up in Zanzibar (and boy, was that a happy Sherpa: not a freezing mountain in sight to climb, just beautiful pristine beaches and a nice warm climate) but that minority will – hopefully – become your fans. Which is why, of course, I write about love and history, and time travelling and love and the 17th century and love and medieval rebellions and love and religious controversy and … Did I mention love?

Gabriel_Metsu_-_Man_Writing_a_LetterThese days, writing is no longer done on paper with ink that leaves ugly blots, those manuscripts pages then rushed off to be typeset. No, dear people, these days writing is done on computers.Yes, yes; some of us draft – or even write – using pen and paper, but ultimately authors these days will keyboard their characters, their plot and setting, into a precious .docx file that exists in multiple back-ups. (WHAT? You have no back-ups????? Well, you clearly like living on the edge, don’t you?) And once the file is on the computer, it is quite easy to publish it without having to do the agent/publishing house thing – you can do it all on your own. (Luckily, as otherwise those people who really, really want to read about the Sherpa and Zanzibar would never get the opportunity as the target reader group is ridiculously small)

The classic business model regarding books for the latest decades has included the author, the agent and the publisher. Any profit made would be shared by the three interested parties, and so long as the publishing companies controlled what was being published, things worked out pretty well. After all, until recently, if you wanted to read a book you needed to buy the physical printed product, and as long as the publishing houses ensured the market wasn’t flooded by too many books in the same genre, readers would browse what was available and buy, thereby guaranteeing higher sales per title, ergo nice, steady profits. Enter the age of digital publishing. Enter the age of Amazon. (I feel a sudden urge to sing here: “When the moon is in the seventh house, and Jupiter aligns with Mars…” Chorus: “This is the dawning of the age of Aaaamazon, the age of Aaaaamazon, Aaaamazon“)

behemotYes, Amazon is a behemoth that is causing rampant death among many smaller and larger booksellers. Yes, Amazon has reinvented the book industry. Yes, Amazon drives e-book sales. Yes, Amazon has created space (he-he) for unpublished authors to go for it. Yes, Amazon is doing all this for profit. No, Amazon won’t go away – and neither will Smashwords or Kobo or all other similar on-line retailers. Or e-books. Why? Because for the reader, Amazon offers a cheap and accessible service, with the added benefit of e-books being far more environmentally friendly than the printed book.

As a consequence, the traditional business model within the book publishing world is under pressure. This leads to publishing houses having to become more restrictive regarding what they publish. Guaranteed sales need to be relatively high for the company to recoup on its investments. Sales of 10 000 copies will generate approximately 20 – 30 thousand pounds in gross profit, but this is before any promotional costs, any salaries to the people involved in the production as such (you know; editors, jacket designer, proof-readers – plus the overheads, such as the cleaners and the managers and the accountants and the sales reps and…) The book sells 5 000, and the gross taking is roughly 10 – 12 thousand pounds, which doesn’t leave much of a profit – if any –  once all expenses incurred have been deducted. It’s a tough world, the book business – almost as tough as life was back then, in that freezing garret room, where the only source of light and heat was a fluttering candle.

When the basic tenets of an industry change, this creates opportunities for new players. Enter the quality-minded, professional small publishing companies that cater to all those authors who no longer have a chance in hell of getting a contract with one of the traditional publishing companies – not because their book is bad, but because they’re not celebrities, or well-known authors that have an established fan base, or have a book that hits a trending sweet-spot. Or are immensely talented.

So, the enthusiastic as yet unknown author wants to publish, the small publishing house offers a package for self-publication and you have a marriage made in heaven. (A word of warning: double check the publishing house before going with them. You want someone who is serious about what they do)  End result of this matrimony = a book, a lovely, lovely book that has the writer smiling like an idiot while he/she strokes the cover (been there, done that). But is it a quality product? Aha! Key question, ladies and gentlemen, best replied by “Judge not a book by its cover“, because no matter how pretty the cover, it’s the content that matters, right?

for-your-eyes-only-stampIf you write for your own pleasure, you don’t need to worry about edits and formatting, about odd POV shifts, about excessive usage of adverbs. You’re doing if For Your Eyes Only, and so it can be just as unfinished as you let it be. But. Major, major but. You put it out there as a book you expect people to buy, well then you owe all those people a certain basic quality. Formatting is nice, for example. Correct spelling helps ( “You now it’s true!” she said. Err… ). Consistent use of verb tense, of names, of dates – all of this is a minimum. I recently read a book where the protagonist is eighteen on one page, twenty-six three chapters later when two years have passed, and in actual fact he must be sixteen as we are told he is ten years younger than another twenty-six-year-old. Very confusing, let me tell you –  and far from a quality product.

This, I believe, is the rub in the entire self-publishing debate. Too many books are published at a deplorable standard, and IMO it is the company facilitating the publication services that somehow must take a stance here. All books do not appeal to all readers – and that’s okay. Personally, I’d hate reading a book about a Sherpa that ended up in Zanzibar (I think; maybe if Stephen Fry wrote it I might reconsider). But as long as the book lives up to a basic standard, I won’t feel shortchanged if I buy it and then simply don’t like it.  So, dear wannabe writers, do yourself – and your future readers – a favour. Hire an editor. Please. Pretty, pretty please? And as to all those publishing houses that cater to the self-publishing industry (including dear, huge Amazon), how about making editing a prerequisite, huh?

paris-charity-in-a-garret-grangerIf we float back in time to that chilly garret (in Paris, of course it’s in Paris, and Rodolfo is holding Mimi’s cold hand while singing his heart out to her, and…oops, sorry, slipped away there) with our industrious author, we will find the floor around his chair littered with pages, pages where words have been scratched out – whole sentences even. Mr long-suffering author is in the editing phase, and because he is dirt poor and convinced he is the best writer since Molière, he scoffs when his timid muse suggests he let someone else take a look at his finished opus. Grammar, he says in a patronising tone, is for lesser writers than he. He is an artiste, a creator of masterpieces, not for him the ridiculous rules of syntax and spelling. No wonder he’s still stuck in that garret of his, cursing the world for not seeing the beauty of his text.

In conclusion, dear people, writers don’t need garrets. But they do need editors – and readers. And books, they need publishing houses that take the craft of writing seriously – so seriously, in fact, that they won’t set their name to a book (self-published or otherwise) unless it meets a certain standard. Like an ISO 9001 approval, but for books. Can’t be that difficult to put in place, can it? Hello? Mr Bezoz? Did you hear that?

Oh, and if someone feels like developing my Sherpa/ Zanzibar story, I do have a rough outline lying about (you call, Mr Fry, and I’ll come running).

 

 

 

Queen for a day – of bridecrowns in gold and myrtle

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Woman: Aphrodite dazzling Paris (Simonet)

Let’s face it: for women, things went decidely downhill with the advent of Christianity. Take, for example, my northern corner of the world.  Viking women had always had a strong position in society, in many ways considered equal to any man. A woman could raise rune stones – she could build bridges, run farms, inherit property, decide who’d inherit her property, have a say in her marriage, tell Mr Abusive Husband to sod off – an early version of “walk out the door, don’t turn around now, I don’t need you anymore“. A Viking woman was considered an adult, with similar rights as a man had.

The same thing goes for Anglo-Saxon ladies. Not much given to retiring like shy violets, these were strong independent women, snickering at such idiotic ideas as wifely obedience. Well, we all know what happened to the Anglo-Saxon ladies: the Normans – and in their wake came an army of determined priests, with the objective of wiping away any remnants of the old pagan society, such as the lunacy of assuming women were equal to men.

Some of those early Church fathers really had it in for women – misogynists, one could almost call them, except that they’d disagree, having no understanding of the term as such. Plus, they’d hasten to point out, their opinions of women were based on facts – such as it being Eve who yanked the apple off the Tree of Knowledge, stupid git that she was. (Alternatively, she was one bright girl, eager to know more) No, St Thomas and St Augustine would say, probably quoting St Paul, “man was not created for the sake of woman, but woman was created for the sake of man”. Alternatively, they’d throw in yet another quote from Corinthians: “man is the head of woman”.

brudkrona master-of-lucy-legend1Christianity in its early forms was virulently patriarchial, which clashed with societies in which women were considered just as capable as any man when it came to managing property. Uh-uh, the Church argued, property was best managed by men, and if the woman in question stood to inherit, it was best that someone else – a man – managed it for her. Woman was reduced to a chattel: either she belonged to her father or brother, having little say in her affairs, or she belonged to her husband – having even less say in her affairs. This, of course, was not always valid. Strong women – and especially those with substantial wealth – have always managed to carve themselves an exception to the rule, but for most girls in the Middle Ages, it was very much about duty and obedience.

It wasn’t only those ancient Catholics: Church leaders, throughout the ages, have repeated ad nauseam that woman is weak, woman is defective, woman must obey. Legally, woman was compelled to obey – in some Western countries well into the 20th century, in other places she is still relegated to being a second-class citizen. At best.

Brudkrona-Schwäbischer_Meister_um_1470_001Anyway: back to the Middle Ages. A girl was born, she was married off, she had babies – and in many cases she died having babies – and then she died. If her husband predeceased her, she could, as a widow, experience a degree of freedom she’d never had before. A widow was allowed to manage her own affairs. I’m thinking there was a lot of high-fiving going about among widows…

For most women, they passed from being the property of their fathers to that of their husbands on their wedding day. A momentuous occasion, to be sure, and I do hope some of those brides skipped to church, elated at being joined in matrimony with the prince of their hearts. Many did no skipping. Marriage was a business transaction, a young fertile womb traded for influence, a rich dowry for an illustrous name. But on the wedding day as such, our little bride was the queen of the day, decked out in as much finery as her father could afford.

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An assortment of crowns

In some countries, brides wore crowns. Heavy wedding crowns were kept in various churches, and the brides could borrow them for the day. These crown were in gold or silver, some were massive, some were dainty. Whatever the case, they underlined the fact that on this day – this day alone – the bride took centre stage.

Often, the bridecrowns were the ones that normally adorned the statues of Virgin Mary. This led to expectations on the brides wearing the crowns. They had to be pure and unmarried. Should a little baby make its entrance into the world too soon after the wedding, questions would be asked, and heavy fines imposed on a bride who’d worn the crown while no longer virgo intacta.

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A Norwegian “crown bride”

In Sweden, the tradition with bridecrowns took off AFTER the Reformation. (What can I say? Not a nation of early adopters – at least not back then.) Yet again, there were expectations that any bride wearing a crown came to the marriage bed “untouched”, and as the ancient tradition of betrothal here in Sweden quite often allowed consummation prior to the wedding, one would have thought the number of young brides wearing crowns would have been low. The Reformed Swedish Church had a solution: couples who were betrothed were no longer allowed to sleep with each other. See? Easy-peasy.

Now, a virgin bride would enter the church with her hair hanging loose. This would be the last time anyone would see her hair like that, and I assume ample care was taken to ensure the hair shone with health. Once a married woman, our young bride would be expected to hide her hair permanently from view (in some cultures, the long hair was cut off – this was the case in some parts of Sweden, well into the 20th century) but on this single day in her life she was allowed to show off her crowning glory, atop which might have perched a real crown.

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Myrtle crown, courtesy of Rosenius Blommor

Not all crowns were made of silver or gold. Already in the Middle Ages, alternative crowns were made with myrtle. Why myrtle, one wonders, and I suppose the easy answer is that myrtle is associated with Aphrodite, goddess of love. The other, somewhat obscure reason, is that myrtle was once seen as a contraceptive herb. By wearing a myrtle crown, the bride was telling the world that so far she hadn’t been sipping myrtle tea, ergo, she was as pure as they came. Hmm.

Here in Sweden, myrtle crowns were all the rage in the 19th century and onwards. Mothers would plant a myrtle tree on the day of their daughter’s baptism, and then sprigs from those myrtles would be used in the future crown. I have two myrtles, purchased when beloved daughter was a baby. Myrtles are sensitive creatures requiring a lot of TLC, so chances are they won’t survive unscathed to her wedding day, but if they do, they will definitely adorn her – I hope.

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My mother-in-law with her crown

To this day, some Swedish brides wear crowns – as a tradition, not as an indication of purity. Some families have crowns that have been handed down for generations – my mother-in-law wore the Belfrage crown on her wedding day, an experience she summarised as “extremely uncomfortable”. But she did look rather spectacular, IMO, regal almost.

These days, most brides do skip on their way to church. They have chosen their groom, they have hopes and dreams of a Happily Ever After with the prince of their heart. Divorce statistics of 40-50% indicates that HEA is rather elusive – or maybe expectations are too high, who knows? Our medieval bride had few illusions. She knew her duty, she knew her place – beneath her husband. Did she aspire to HEA? Rarely. Did she hope for contentment? Possibly. But on that day, her wedding day, she was, for one brief moment, a queen.

This post has been written as part of a bloghop celebrating the publication of the second volume of Customs Castles and Kings: True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors edited by Debra Brown and Sue Millard.

Click here to read the other posts! Everything from “Deadly Cat Customs” to “Harvest Moons and Customs”…

CC&KII CoverAn anthology of essays from the second year of the English Historical Fiction Authors blog, Customs Castles and Kings: True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors transports the reader across the centuries from prehistoric to twentieth century Britain. Nearly fifty different authors share the stories, incidents, and insights discovered while doing research for their own historical novels.

From medieval law and literature to Tudor queens and courtiers, from Stuart royals and rebels to Regency soldiers and social calls, experience the panorama of Britain’s yesteryear. Explore the history behind the fiction, and discover the true tales surrounding Britain’s castles, customs, and kings.

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