Monthly Archives: June 2018

How History Books Will Make You a Better Writer


by Lillian Csernica on June 27, 2018

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Why do I write about history?

History gives me an opportunity to get the big picture on how different countries have tried to make different strategies work. Economic strategies, military strategies, and the more cultural and artistic strategies that come under the heading of fashion.

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A good example is Scotland, which has a long history of internal clan conflicts and the border wars with England. The weather in Scotland tends toward clouds and rain. Sheep do well on the landscape of Scotland, so you see a lot of wool in their clothing styles, notably the kilt. I know a lot of people who have spent a great deal of time looking up their family tartans. The truth is, clan tartans are an invention of the Victorian period. This is one of those annoying facts that bursts the romantic bubble of many an amateur historian.

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I’ve written often about my fondness for Japan. Feudal Japan was an era of strict social classes, laws about fashion, and precise rules about social etiquette. While the tyranny of the Tokugawa Shogunate was eventually its own undoing, I must confess I would find a certain comfort in having so many matters of culture spelled out for me. Modern Japanese also enjoy the two-edged sword of knowing exactly who they are and where they stand in whatever social context they find themselves. In the time of the Tokugawa, clothing, hairstyles, personal ornamentation, and weaponry were the indicators of social position. Today we see all that grandeur reduced to the common everyday business card. That has become the crucial indicator of status and context for the Japanese. Westerners are advised to bring plenty of their own. Otherwise there are businesses available which produce cards very quickly with one side in English and the other in Japanese.

It was Eleanor who paid her son's ransom when he was captured

I write romance novels, so I get to take a close look at the techniques of wooing in various times and places. Medieval Europe had the concept of the Court of Chivalry. Eleanor of Aquitaine was largely responsible for this idea. Knights were measured against the Code of Chivalry to see if they met the beau ideal of those times. The real purpose of the Courts of Chivalry was to keep the women occupied while the men were off on Crusade or fighting battles closer to home. Bored noblewomen can be dangerous noblewomen, as Eleanor of Aquitaine herself proved on more than one occasion. In our present time the High Court of Chivalry deals with matters of heraldry.

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Novels from the Regency and Victorian periods entertain me because they’re all about clothes and money. Social position is the bottom line, and so many of the characters are looking to trade up. Finding someone you can love for the rest of your life is nowhere near as important as finding someone with a respectable income of so many hundreds or thousands of pounds per year. It’s possible that I’ve become a tad cynical regarding romance. When you’ve been married for thirty years, the starry-eyed honeymoon phase is a rather distant memory. That’s probably why I enjoy recreating it in my stories.

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Oddly enough, ancient history holds little appeal for me. The mysteries of ancient Egypt focus so much on the afterlife. I know more than I ever wanted to about the process of mummification. I find it interesting that the Egyptian gods have animal heads, which also occur in the Hindu pantheon. What does this similarity mean? What exchange of culture might have gone on that modern archaeologists have yet to discover? As with so many cultures, the most noteworthy people are the upper classes, especially the royalty. The lower classes, especially the slaves, had a hard life. 

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One of the most fascinating aspects of history is food. For the first novel I ever wrote, I had to go looking for Basque cookbooks because the novel was set in Navarre. It took quite some doing, but I finally discovered what my heroine would have for breakfast: chestnuts boiled in milk and sprinkled with nutmeg. Compare that with the necessity in Egypt of having many festal days where the upper classes distributed beer and bread to the lower classes. If not for that, many of the commoners and slaves in Egypt would have starved to death.

In Medieval Europe, bread, watered wine, ale, meats such as venison, game birds, and roast pork, and large wheels of cheese made up the main meal. You can find a number of cookbooks online that provide recipes from the Middle Ages. The key difference in culinary art between the Middles Ages and the Renaissance came down to the use of spices. The Middle Ages saw lots of spices thrown in for rich flavors. Renaissance cooking became more selective, creating unique dishes centered around particular flavor combinations. My research in this area taught me the pleasure of chicken prepared with cinnamon.

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Then there’s jewelry. I could go on and on about the delights of dressing up my heroes and heroines in the bijouterie of their particular time periods. From the hair ornaments of the geisha to the mourning rings of the Victorian period, from the jeweled inlays of the Egyptian pectoral collars to the prayer ropes of the Middles Ages called paternosters made from ivory beads or garnets or even pearls, the treasure chests of history are overflowing. I once had the pleasure of visiting the Smithsonian Institution and seeing the earrings of Marie Antoinette. Given that their total weight was more than 35 carats, it’s a wonder she didn’t end up with earlobes stretched like King Tut’s!

History is full of fascinating details. There are so many ideas out there just waiting to inspire you. Read those history books, those biographies, those memoirs! You never know when you’re going to find the one detail that opens up a world of inspiration.

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Filed under artists, classics, creativity, family tradition, fantasy, Fiction, Food, historical fiction, history, Japan, Lillian Csernica, marriage, nature, research, romance, travel, Writing

5 Ways I Make Depression Help Me


by Lillian Csernica on June 12, 2018

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I am currently suffering a depressive episode. All the problems in my life are magnified. I can’t sleep. When I do, I have nightmares. I have no energy, but life goes on as usual with all the typical daily chaos. Same stress, different day. I just can’t deal with it.

On the subject of tackling some dull, boring, and otherwise loathsome task, some years ago a therapist suggested that I attempt to do said task on a day when I was already swamped with all the bad juju of depression. As she put it, “Why ruin a good day?” That’s a very good point.

With that in mind, I decided that when depression shows up to ruin my day, I’m going to punish depression by using that day to catch up on every task I really hate to do.

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Housework

Changing the bedding — Doing this makes my lower back ache, my sprained knee hurt, and can often result in pulled muscles and the occasional pinched nerve.

Doing the laundry — A necessary evil, one that requires me to haul baskets of dirty and then clean laundry up and down my stairway. Then comes the tedious chore of folding it all and putting it all away.

Scrubbing floors — Bad for my knees, bad for my back, and really bad for my temper.

Clutter busting — I’m not good at throwing things away. Trash, sure. Actual garbage, no problem. When it comes to anything with a sentimental attachment, that gets harder. I’m told that a key piece of the problem with hoarding is that it’s grounded in loss. I’ve had some drastic losses in my life. Maybe that’s one reason why I’m not good at purging my possessions.

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Writing

Just slam it out. Set the timer, keep the pen moving. This is my No Mercy approach to bypassing the Internal Editor. There are days when depression adds a whole other layer of torment to the usual insecurities of writing. Imagine Imposter Syndrome on steroids.

Get messy. Get wild. Tear it all up and start over. This is more fun. The Frat Party/Rock Star/Road Trip method. Trash that metaphorical hotel room. Write all the forbidden thoughts. Screw structure and pace. Let’s write so hard we blow out some windows!

Go Hide Somewhere So I Don’t Happen to Somebody

Coffeehouse — My local Peet’s has become my current Happy Place. I’m in there two or three times a week. The baristas know me. The regulars know me. I’ve met some fascinating people there. I’m out in public, so the pressures and triggers here at home can’t get to me.

Library — Guaranteed peace and quiet, as long as I’m there before school lets out. I love the smell of books. I love the comfort of knowing all those books were written by people who have dealt with the same struggles I’m experiencing.

My room — Aside from the clutter problem (see above), my room is the place where I can go, shut the door, lock the door, and hide. I have a hook on the outside of my door on which I hang signs alerting the rest of the household to my state of mind. Sleeping. Working. Not Now.

OK. Maybe it’s not hiding so much as taking refuge when I just can’t fake being cheerful anymore.

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If the depression is still gaining the upper hand and I’m good for absolutely nothing productive, then I give it up and resort to palliative care:

Watch Action Movies With Lots of Explosions

Deadpool 1 and 2

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1 and 2

True Lies

The Replacement Killers

XXX (The Vin Diesel movie)

 

If you also experience depression, be it that passing sorrow people call “the blues” or full blown Major Depressive Disorder, then I offer you a high five in solidarity. The Big Black Dog is a voracious monster and wants to eat us alive. We can’t let that happen. Talk to somebody. If you write in a notebook, that somebody can be totally imaginary. Use your words. The more you can get out of your own head, escape those quicksand thoughts, the more you can put the Big Black Dog on a leash.

You are not alone. I’m here. I hear you. I see you. We have to stick together on this.

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Filed under bad movies, chocolate, classics, creativity, Depression, Family, Fiction, frustration, housework, Lillian Csernica, neurodiversity, Self-image, therapy, worry, Writing

Three Reasons Why June is A Great Month for Writing


by Lillian Csernica on June 8, 2018

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All good stories begin with a change in the status quo, the problem situation, that plunges the main character into turmoil. Change is the writer’s best friend, and June is a month full of changes. In many cultures, the biggest changes in a person’s life are marked by rites of passage. June is a great month for two very important rites:

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Graduation

The transition from one level of education to another is always significant. Kindergarten to elementary school, from there to middle school, and then the big move to high school as the launch pad for college. Mainstream students deserve to celebrate their achievements, those who struggle and those who shine. Today’s world places so many demands on children while at the same time burdening them with so many distractions. It’s a wonder so many students can focus long enough to do so well.

Yesterday my family attended the graduation ceremony for my older son Michael. At 22 he has now aged out of the school district’s post-graduate program for seniors in the county special education class. This means leaving the learning environment and the network of teachers, aides, therapists, bus drivers, and the registered nurse who have all been part of Michael’s life since he was 3 years old.

With the help of his classroom aide and one of his adaptive communication devices, Michael made a speech that included a little bit about himself, two of his favorite jokes, and a warm thank you to all the people who have helped him come so far. When you live in the world of special needs families, you celebrate every sign of progress no matter how small. Michael and the 6 other students also graduating today demonstrated the passion, dedication, patience, and love present in the parents, teachers, and administrators gathered there. So many stories worthy of being told.

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Weddings

June is a favorite month for weddings. Clear skies, lots of sunshine, and plenty of flowers make for ideal conditions, indoor or outdoor. Summer weather also means a wider selection of honeymoon destinations. The happy couple is about to embark on a whole new phase of their lives together.  There are all those people, the family and friends, who wish the pair getting married all the best. Then there are those people who…don’t.

I’m of an age now where I’ve been to several weddings. As a writer I know that any large event that brings together intense emotion, lots of money, family dynamics, and alcohol is going to bring out the best and the worst in people. Given that most weddings also drag God and the Law into the situation, there’s so much pressure to meet so many expectations. Put all this together and what do you get? Conflict! The key element of any strong story.

Here’s a quick list of my favorite wedding movies:

My Big Fat Greek Wedding

Muriel’s Wedding

Four Weddings and a Funeral

Shrek

Pride and Prejudice (Yes, the one with Colin Firth.)

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The Summer Solstice

Summer is the season of freedom. Long days, short nights, no school, family vacations. We can all call to mind a family vacation where at least one thing didn’t go as planned, leading to the kind of drama that makes a story worth telling.

The Solstice itself is celebrated all over the world. No matter how far we get in terms of advanced technology, everybody wants to make sure the sun keeps rising and setting. The summer solstice marks the waning of the sun. No wonder summer is full of so much partying! Midsummer Eve is known for being one of those occasions when the veil between the worlds grows thin, much like Halloween. Gateways, boundaries, borders, and other points of transition are all natural settings for big changes and great stories.

For more on the folklore attached to the summer solstice, click here.

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