Noblesse oblige, libraries, trees, and cyberbullying prevention

Castle with towers and moat and red and white patterned shutters. Burg Satzvey, Germany.
What can you do with your heritage? Noblesse oblige for the modern age. Burg Satzvey, Germany. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

Yesterday, I visited a nearby village and strolled through the public part of the castle grounds of the lovely Burg Satzvey. It was built in the early 1300’s and now hosts jousting and other medieval-sounding shows for the entertainment of the populace. Half-timbered houses cluster around the castle and a large church stands just up the hill.

How do you decide what to do with a castle, if you inherit one? In medieval times, the castle protected the village folk and probably provided a secure marketplace for trading. The size of the modern parking lot and the shops (now closed for the winter) inside the castle say that some things don’t change. Using your inheritance in this way probably has pros and cons. We also saw a bench securely chained down in front of a village house. The tourists around here must be eager for souvenirs.

But the noble family could have made a different choice: they could have left the castle to fall down into a romantic ruin. For example, the abandoned vineyards on the Mosel are called “Brazils” because so many vintners left the area for warmer climes.

One person’s decision can influence a whole village.

My own experience is that people move around much more in the United States. Many people volunteer and serve their communities in all kinds of ways. Some give to their communities in large-scale ways. Andrew Carnegie gave us libraries. I just found a new book I want to read about him.

Wangari Maathai of Kenya planted a tree, and another and another, and eventually won the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize. Read about her story in the picture book PLANTING THE TREES OF KENYA.

Or what about teen Trisha Prabhu’s app to prevent cyberbullying? Listen to her TED talk here.

We’re sometimes quick to dismiss our own experiences and education. Burg Satzvey gave me two questions for myself that I pass on to you:

  1. What is our heritage and how will we choose to build on it?
  2. What moves us enough to take a first small step?

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Wait–My free calendar from the health food store has predictive powers?

Wild boar with nose dusted with snow from January page of my 2016 calendar.
January’s Wild Boar from my ReformhausMarketing GmbH 2016 calendar. Image: Horst Jegen/ImageBROKER/mauritius images

My youngest took a horse for a walk in the forest this week. I went along.

The horse, Rökkvi, is a shaggy, black, Icelandic pony with a mellow disposition. We were walking along one of the forest’s old hunting roads when Rökkvi pricked his ears and turned his head to the left.

When we finally looked, we saw a wild boar hurtling through the forest parallel to us. The boar shot past us, made a 90 degree turn, crossed our road, and disappeared into the forest on our right.

Rökkvi’s expression: “I told you there was something.”

I haven’t turned the calendar page yet to see what’s coming up in February.

 

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Exploring the Imagination: Fictional Characters From Art Museums

Brochure for Zurbaran exhibit showing painting of woman in red, brocade, dress, long black hair, ivory face and a scratch that symbolizes a halo.
Art museums are treasure troves for fleshing out characters. This beautiful painting inspired a queen antagonist character in my latest work-in-progress.

See the trailer for the exhibit here:

The stunning poster drew me in for the latest exhibit in Düsseldorf’s Museum Kunstpalast. It’s called “Zurbarán: Meister der Details” [Master of Details] and features 16th-century full-size portraits by the Spanish painter Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664).

My first reaction to the poster was: “There she is!” She is the queen antagonist for my new middle grade work-in-progress.

The extreme contrast of ivory skin and long, black hair, the 397 pearls on the hem of her gown, and the intensity of her eyes, almost scornful–certainly assessing–give the sense that you’ve caught her attention and it may not be to your advantage.

She’s caught up her brocade gown with one, white, elegant, hand and is ready to move. She’s only paused to run her eye over you.

Only after I went into the exhibit did I realize that the tiny flaw in the canvas above her head is actually a halo. The painting’s subject is St. Casilda, not an evil queen at all.

If I borrow his St. Casilda and embroider a character for my latest middle grade adventure, I’m only following his example. The rich gown is an invention of the painter, the son of a cloth merchant, who invented the elegant fashions of his subjects based on his father’s cloth samples.

There are advantages to drawing characters from a master. The artist works in a visual medium and the character traits that are words to me, are the artist’s details of dress, expression, and gesture. The artist paints a mood with colors and light and, through his painting, I can borrow his eyes to sketch a vivid character.

If you’d like to try it yourself, here are a few suggestions:

  1. Cast an eye over the museum guards and visitors. Anyone who thinks there’s no romance to a museum guard hasn’t read FROM THE MIXED UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER (or seen Audrey Hepburn in HOW TO STEAL A MILLION). What visitors say and do in museums tells another set of stories. Sometimes I catch a moment of conscious or unconscious mimicry or hear a wonderful snippet of dialogue that helps my story along.

2. If your museum doesn’t have portraits, try a more literal use of a painting. In C.S. Lewis’s THE VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER, a painting of a Narnian ship turns into a portal to the imaginary world of Narnia.

3. Prep a character or two before your museum visit. The Reverse Backstory Tool is an efficient tool for working out the connection between your character’s want, need, flaw, and wound. The “Reverse Backstory Tool” appears in Appendix B of THE NEGATIVE TRAIT THESAURUS by Angela Acker and Becca Puglisi. The tool is handy to prep before your museum visit or to develop characters who’ve caught your eye in the museum.

Art museums are a treasure trove for characters. The artists have done all the work of people-watching and the paintings already express personalities and stories. It’s all ready-to-pick, so go ahead and fill the well.

Do you find art museums inspiring? What do you enjoy about them?

 

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What’s it like to visit historical sites for a story world you’ve only imagined?

Men in red and gold and blue medieval woolen tunics accompanied by shield and spear bearing knights
The Middle Ages come to life in Arezzo, Italy. ©Jan Decher, 2002.

After I moved to Germany, I planned a trip of a lifetime to visit the physical places in my children’s adventure story set in the early Middle Ages. I wrote the story with spreadsheets, maps, Google, and libraries. It was a work of imagination based on research.

The itinerary included the most important and accessible places in the story:

  • Bologna (nearest airport and unexpectedly beautiful)
  • Casa Cares near Tuscany (a family visit to this retreat center brought me to Arezzo and the story)
  • Camaldolì monastery (an 11th century monastery and hermitage)
  • Arezzo (Birthplace of Guido d’Arezzo and my main character’s home. Site of an annual medieval festival that clothes the whole city in the Middle Ages.)
  • Pratovecchio (a beautiful medieval town with arcades)
  • Poppi (site of an ancient castle, and on the route my characters traveled over the mountains)
  • Classe (known for its byzantine mosaics and churches. Site of the Basilica of Sant’ Apollinaire with the mosaic mural of a shepherd with sheep that Bella admires on her way to Venice.)
  • Ravenna (the modern city near Classe and the sea. Organic market under the arcades with medlars, sausages, ricotta cheese and Napoleon squash.)
  • Pomposa Abbey (a powerful medieval Abbey, today much further from the sea)
  • Venice (colors, light, flavors, a museum of boats and the beginning of the sea journey)

I hoped to collect images, recordings, and maybe video to use on a new website. My husband and child #2 are photographers and agreed to be pressed into service.

My goals for the trip were to experience my story world with all five senses and to resist the temptation to go overboard and drive my family crazy.
What actually happened surprised me. Here are some quotes from my trip journal:

Imagination: How does it work? What is it good for?

“I’m constantly adjusting to two sets of ‘memories’: the set from a visit here in 2002 with my parents and the set from Bella’s [my main character’s] imaginary journey.”

“My husband said, ‘Your imagination is important’ meaning, it needed to be recorded and cared for in the midst of confusing landscapes and facts.”

Validation: I got some things right.

“I felt hopeful for the first time in a while when I saw Guido d’Arezzo’s house is close to the church and the park with the Medici fortress. It is downhill to the piazza grande from there.”

“The friendly man in the tourist office agreed that the Cathedral School might have been up where the Medici ruins are now.”

It was so much fun to talk to someone who knew and cared about the real Guido d’Arezzo. I had no idea how much it would help me with the story to get that boost.

Fortune from a Baci chocolate: ‘Metti il cuore in tutto ciò che fai.’ Or ‘Put your heart in everything you do.’

Disappointment: Some things have changed since the 11th century. In many cases, the particular medieval landscape I wanted to photograph didn’t exist any more. The places that felt most like my story were sometimes in the next village over.

“We didn’t get to Camaldolì because we would have been too late getting home.”

Note: we drove a car and my characters walked, went by donkey or in a litter. So much for the spreadsheet distance and travel time calculation!

“The winding roads slow the pace of modernity. Not that much faster than Bella.”

Generosity: the balance between getting it perfect and letting it go

“My husband is very generous to take me places when he would like to sit in the sun and talk to people.”

The experience: What it feels like to travel in unknown places:

“Luke Skywalker could drive a rental car through tunnels surrounded by trucks traveling at top speed. The Death Star is nothing to this.”

“My daughter’s order of ‘latte freddo bianco’ [cold white milk] came with a teacup and saucer and a spoon.”

“A list of things that could bother Bella: mosquitoes (+ malaria), fog and poor visibility, the smells of pig farms and old fish, injuries, cut fingers, blisters, wasp stings, the feeling of being cheated, the need to re-group, trying to recall what she’d seen, angry drivers. . .what is the medieval equivalent of a road with a slow bicycle, a Vespa between lanes, a heavy truck in front and another passing from behind?”

I never expected to walk around in my imaginary world with my family. It was hard to talk about things I hadn’t put into words before and to make a claim that my imaginary people existed in a real landscape. It was magical for me and I think it helped my family understand better too.

This trip reminded me that a story is a kind of hospitality. We invite people in and try to make them comfortable before they embark on adventure.

What makes you comfortable when you set out on adventure? What sparks your imagination?

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A Novel Way for Young Readers to Relate to Faith?

Interior view of castle with people standing in the open gate and sunlight behind them.
What difference does faith make? Marburg’s Landgrave Castle (Landgrafenschloss). Influential religious leaders Luther, Zwingli, Bucer, Melanchthon and Oeclampadius met here in 1529 to discuss their differences.

Last week, my husband and I visited Marburg, the town where we first met. In 2017, Marburg will join many cities in Germany in a celebration of Martin Luther and the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Belief, politics, power all mixed together to shape Europe’s history.

Events are planned all over Germany. The Playmobil company even released a tiny Martin Luther figure. (I’d like to see one for Katharina von Bora, the intrepid nun who later married Martin Luther.) Whatever your views on the Reformation or Martin Luther, it’s interesting that a toy company thought there was a market for Martin Luther Playmobil figures. Toy Noah’s Arks abound in the United States, but I’ve never seen a Mattel Pope action figure or a MatchBox Popemobile.

Living in Germany makes me wonder: if religious faith has such a strong influence in the world, isn’t it a priority to learn more? How will we (and the next generations) be able to talk about such sensitive topics without having the language, frameworks, or empathy to understand one another?

For readers and writers, a novel is an ideal way to develop empathy and practice that mantra of peace-making amidst diversity: “What might [fill in the blank] be true of?”

Natalie Lloyd’s middle grade book,  A SNICKER OF MAGIC, touches naturally and lightly on faith, as does Gary D. Schmidt’s THE WEDNESDAY WARS.

What other recent novels would you recommend for readers who want the inside experience of a particular faith?

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5 New Publishing Tools from the 2015 Frankfurt Book Fair

Presenter Dai Qin of Douban Read at the 2015 Frankfurt Book Fair International Self-Publishing and Author Programme. ©Laurel Decher, 2015.
Presenter Dai Qin of Douban Read at the 2015 Frankfurt Book Fair International Self-Publishing and Author Programme. ©Laurel Decher, 2015.

The International Self-Publishing and Author Programme at the Frankfurt Book Fair was on Saturday, October 17th. Here are five new tools I discovered:

(1) BookTrack is a tool that lets you add a soundtrack to your story or novel. Here’s a YouTube overview of how it works and a brief sample of what it feels like to read a book with a soundtrack. BookTrack takes a 30% royalty on the text and a 70% royalty on the soundtrack.

As a reader, I’m not sure I like the pacing arrow traveling the right margin, but it’s an interesting tool to check your pacing as a writer. What do you think? Useful or annoying?

(2) Soovle is a free tool for identifying search terms and categories to help readers find your work. You type words in the search box and get popular search terms and categories from Google, Amazon, YouTube, Wikipedia, Bing, Answers.com, and Yahoo. It has a selection of other search engines you can choose from including Barnes & Noble. I don’t see Kobo or GoodReads although they would also be useful.

You can save the search terms to a file. This isn’t the kind of tool that tells you how many people search on the search terms you find. It just ranks the terms in order of popularity.

(3) PublishDrive is an e-book and print book distributor based in Hungary. It sounds similar to Smashwords or Amazon’s CreateSpace in that you can opt in or out of each online store. The difference appears to be that PublishDrive has access to more local stores in international markets.

They require DRM (digital rights management) whenever possible. Like Smashwords and CreateSpace, you can get a free ISBN for e-books, but need to buy an ISBN from your country of residence for print books, as you do for Ingram.

(4) Agentur für Buchmarktstandards is where you get ISBN’s if you write and publish in Germany. I also learned that ISBNs are free for Canadian residents. Sounds like a writer-friendly country. Go Canada! 🙂

(5) Douban Read is an e-bookstore in China. According to this blog post, it’s not the first e-book distributor in China. Their presentation kicked off with this YouTube video of Dutch author Thomas Olde Heuvelt (2015 Hugo Award Winner).

There’s something enticing about reaching a world market this way and finding new readers in another culture.

Anything you want to try, either as a reader or a writer?

_________________

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Rituals for Starting Work: medieval construction, coal mining, printing presses

Detailed 3D model of castle, church, moat and outbuildings. Schloss Horst Museum, Gelsenkirchen, Germany.
Model of medieval construction workers building Schloss Horst.

Over the weekend, I visited a castle, the Schloss Horst Museum in Gelsenkirchen, a printing press, the Historische Druckwerkstatt that offered a trip to the age of lead, and a coal mine, Bergbaustollen Nordsternpark.

Schloss Horst turned out to be a museum that drops you into the everyday life of the past. Animal sound effects, dust, sand, realistic puddles, and holes in the fence for the medieval supervisors to judge their workers’ industriousness completed the medieval construction site. There was also slate-chipping to try, medieval clothes to try on, and a room-sized model of the village as it must have been.

We walked by the table where the workers were paid. Each worker had a split stick–one half was his receipt and the other have belonged to the paymaster. Grooves cut across the stick showed how many hours had been worked.

Our tour guide showed us how to use a wooden table as a visual adding machine and money conversion tool. He was so fast laying down coins and moving them to the next marking on the table, I couldn’t take any pictures. He said people of the time would’ve been much faster. Personally, I would find a line of construction workers holding sticks to be highly motivational.

In the print shop, there was a newspaper article about the printers’ “Gautschfest” subtitled “Freisprechung der Lehrlinge” (literally: the ceremony of speaking the apprentices free) showing a stoic apprentice being doused in a barrel of water.

After our tour of the coal mine, our group leader was invited to don “an apron for the backside.” One coal miner then held a huge shovel behind her and the other struck the shovel with a hammer so it resounded like a gong.

Not sure why rituals give us something to push against. Maybe we feel like we belong, or feel a bit more in control when we know the proper response. A little bit of ridiculousness comforts us when we are set loose in the cold, dark world.

The coal miners had a greeting ritual before they went down in the mines: “Glück auf!” In English, the word “Glück” means something between gladness and luck, which is probably what it feels like when you come up from the mines at the end of your shift.

"Glück auf!" engraved in white on a black stone. Miners pre-shift greeting and mine shaft.
Best wishes for this week, whichever mines you work.

So I wish you “Glück auf!” on this Monday morning.

 

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