September 29th 1240 –King Henry III of England and his queen, Eleanor of Provence, celebrate the arrival of their second child, a daughter.  This new princess is named Margaret after Eleanor’s beloved sister Marguerite, Queen of France.

In September of 1939 you couldn’t find Steinbeck’s iconic The Grapes of Wrath on public library shelves in Kern County California (it had been banned by the county board of supervisors).  And The Grapes of Wrath is just one of many books now considered “classics” that has come under attack over the years (Call of the Wild or Lord of the Rings anyone?). In 2010, 2008, 2007 and 2006 the most frequently challenged book in America was a picture book — And Tango Makes Three, by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell – about two (male) Penguin’s at the Central Park Aoo who are given a chance to hatch an egg that needs a home and do an admirable job (based on a true story).

Now I have NO PROBLEM with people deciding that THEY won’t read a particular book, whatever their reasons (plenty of people will doubtless choose to forgo mine). Think Harry Potter promotes witchcraft? Then for heaven’s sake don’t buy it, and walk right past the series on the library shelf. Deciding not to read something because you object to its content isn’t much different, in my opinion, than not picking up a book because you don’t like the genre, or putting a book down mid-read because you just aren’t engaged. It’s called consumer choice.

What I DO object to in the strongest possible terms are people who want to keep me or anyone else from making our own reading decisions. This is sanctimonious hooey! It’s my free time, it’s my library card (or dollar); I don’t want to be told what I can or can’t read with it. And I especially don’t want others attempting to parent my children – which is precisely what they are trying to do when they challenge a book’s inclusion in school or public library. If a card-carrying member (oooo, if they have cards do you think they show little piles of books burning) of the book challenging/banning crew doesn’t want his children to read a particular title then he should make a rule—FOR HIS OWN FAMILY and nobody else’s. Seriously, if you have so little control over your progeny that you need to keep a book off a public shelf to keep it out of Junior’s hands you have a much bigger problem to worry about than whether or not Twilight is going to turn your child into a Mormon.

So how can we support (to quote the American Library Association) “the freedom to choose or the freedom to express one’s opinions even if that opinion might be considered unorthodox or unpopular and [stress] the importance of ensuring the availability of those viewpoints to all who wish to read them?”  The simplest way I can think of is to read a banned book this week in celebration of the fact that you CAN and mindful of the fact that there was a time and a place when somebody couldn’t. Better still, borrow a banned book from the library with your child and, after he/she has enjoyed it explain that “once upon a time” that book was excluded from the shelves. It is never too early to instill the values of “open access” and open mindedness in the next generation.

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And to think, only this weekend my son asked me who invented the zipper. I am quite certain this is not this historically correct answer but it is funny as heck.

“Stone was all my old dad ever needed. . .”

Don’t we all feel like this sometimes?  I mean when my laptop was last in the shop for a couple of days I felt a certain nostalgia for the selectric typewriter that sat on my mother’s desk when I was growing up.

 

First a confession . . .I got the idea for this post while watching a movie—a movie I’ve seen before that always makes me cry.  As I swallowed hard, trying to fight back tears during the climactic scene I found myself wondering, why do I put this film in the DVD player when I know the response it is going to evoke?  Why do I take a perfectly good Sunday afternoon and willingly lower my own spirits?

A similar question can be asked about books.  The first time we read a novel we don’t know that it is going to end uncomfortably.  But the next time we most certainly do.  So, why do we re-read such stories?  When I was sixteen I thought that Ivanhoe would end up with Rebecca (totally unrealistic—I know).  Decades later I know with certainty he will not.  Yet I take Sir Walter Scott’s novel off my shelf again and again. What value is there to be found in reading an “unhappily ever after” tale?

1)  Books where everything doesn’t end well for everyone make us think.  When life is smooth sailing we tend to “go with it.”  Nothing wrong with that!  There isn’t much call for pondering our fate or closely examining our own actions when everything is moving along smoothly.  And the same is true in reading.  I tend to race through happy books, enjoying every minute, but not exactly mulling over the deeper stuff of life.  That’s not to say I never think about ethical issues when reading a book that ends—who hasn’t considered the role of duty and honesty in life when confronted with the juxtaposition of Mr. Knightly and Mr. Frank Churchill?  But nothing makes me confront the BIG issues like a book that ends badly.  Want to tackle human evil, racism, illness, the death of a child, inequality before the law, loneliness, colonialism, religious intolerance?  A novel can make you do that, but only if you read novels that put their characters through the ringer.  These are the books where bad things happen to good people, but I would argue positive good comes out of reading and discussing them (even heatedly).

2)  Books that don’t resolve neatly for characters we think of as “deserving” set realistic expectations for real life.  Life is full of difficult stuff (see the list of issues in the last paragraph and that doesn’t scratch the surface).  Stories that sanitize human existence don’t do us any favors.  Look at what believing that her life would be like a romantic novel did for Emma Bovary.  Seriously. Readingfor escapism has its place, but if it is all we do then it is easy to start believing the hype.  And when we hit obstacles in our lives that don’t resolve with hard work or a convenient plot twist we can start to feel aggrieved, even though common sense and experience tell us that life is not fair.  I call this the “where’s my happy ending” syndrome.  The occasional book where the good are not rewarded and/or the bad are not punished goes a long way towards restoring our balanced view of our own lot.  The Disney version of “A Little Mermaid” may have tunes I can hum but the original story resonates with me on a deeper level.

So bring on the tear-jerkers, the novels that make me grind my teeth in frustration, and the books that make me hope against reason that next time I read them they will end differently.  I am ready to feel the horror as Anna Karenina realizes too late that she wants to live.  I am ready to shed an angry tear with Jem when he learns Tom Robinson has been convicted.  I am ready to be tied up in knots again by Richard Wright’s Native SonI will continue to read and re-read books where bad things happen to good characters because they make me attend to matters of my own character in a way that nothing else can.

Mid September 1248 – The French crusaders land in the Kingdom of Cyprus where they will winter before continuing on to the Holy Land.  King Louis IX; his queen, Marguerite of Provence; his brothers Robert and Charles and their wives all arrive on the same ship.  Pulling into port they are greeted by an overwhelming and very reassuring sight—vast quantities of supplies for their crusade.  These stores are tangible proof of the efficacy of Louis’s hard work and planning in the years before they left France.

I was thrilled to receive several full-color galleys for my novel, The Sister Queens, last week.  For those of you not familiar with the term “galleys,” they are uncorrected proofs of a novel.  When they are in bound form as mine are they can also be called ARCs (advance reader copies).  How I wish I had enough galleys to share with all of you who have been regular visitors to my site and so supportive of my writing. Alas, however, I do not.

I just had to find another way to share a sneak peek at the galleys and my excitement over them (and I AM excited because this is as close as I’ve come to holding my writing in actual book form). So, though I am by no means a technically savvy person, I’ve created a short “Galley Preview” video. Hope you enjoy it.

Forget the Sharks and the Jets, the Roundheads and the Royalists are ready to rumble.

 

If cost were no object I would definitely make a book trailer.  It would be just like a big-studio film trailer—atmospheric music, gorgeous settings, first-rate live actors, dramatic editing effects.

But cost is not irrelevant.  Not in my world (if it is irrelevant in yours and you want to bankroll my big budget book trailer just let me know).  So when I got my book contract and started to plan my personal promotional budget I had to look critically at every possible piece of the marketing puzzle.  As part of that process I asked myself what I could reasonably expect to achieve with a book trailer for The Sister Queens, and given that did I want to invest in one?

Never one to make a decision in a vacuum (or to miss an opportunity for goofing off on YouTube when I should be reading an obscure reference work), I looked at dozens of book trailers.  Along the way I realized that writers of historical fiction face special challenges because our trailers must create and populate a rich visual world removed in time and place from the present and transport the viewer there.  Of course we had to do this in our novels as well, BUT we were working with words and that left the visual images up to the fertile brains of our readers.  In a visual medium (a video trailer) we must craft the images ourselves (or pay someone to craft them), and they must be convincing.

Having finished my “tour de trailers” I have pretty much decided that not to do a trailer for The Sister Queens.  But I’ve been known to make the wrong decision (more than once even).  So I am asking you, AS READERS (fellow writers, put your “readers hat” on please) to disabuse me of the following conclusions I drew along my journey.

Lots of book trailers view like educational power point presentations.  They have music, they have art.  Sometimes they manage to have both from the same (and the correct) period.  They might even have well-done voice-overs (don’t get me started on the trailers that just have rolling text like extensive film credits).  But I have to admit a vast majority of book trailers without live action felt educational to me.  This was true even of the trailers that wove a bit of author interview in (this technique reminded me of the “talking heads” used in documentary films).

I am big on education (especially history education), but I thought the purpose of a book trailer was to make me want to BUY THE BOOK.  These fact-heavy trailers full of still images just didn’t sweep me up and leave me all shivery the way good film trailers (and by good I mean trailers that make me come back and plunk down money to see the full product) can.  I guess when a visual medium—video—is employed I want action.  So what about trailers featuring live actors?

Live-action trailers can be more gripping but NOT if they look homemade.  Blame the production values I am used to seeing in costume-drama on PBS, but if I can tell that a live-action trailer for a book set at the Tudor court was made in someone’s dining room or backyard, you’ve lost me.  If the costumes look homemade or, god forbid, halloweeny (if that is not a word I hereby create it), I can’t even watch to the end.  My reaction to such trailers is similar to when I attend a recital at which one performer botches badly and I don’t know where to look because I am just SO embarrassed for him.  I know this is unfair because creating a realistic look for a historical trailer is difficult whereas if you write a contemporary novel you can come up with a convincing setting and wardrobe pretty easily.  But I guess we historical novelists ought to have thought of that before picking a genre because the bottom line is I am not willing to forgive hokey.

And then there are the acting and editing aspects of a live-action trailer.  Have a look at the trailers for The Borgias or The Tudors or Game of Thrones.  Setting aside any historical accuracy issues you may have, have you ever seen a book trailer that looked like them?  I haven’t.  They are pure, pulse-pounding drama.  If these were book trailers I would crawl over broken glass to buy the books.  But I suspect they cost big, BIG money (see paragraph 2 – I do not have big money).

Finally, even if I poured vast sums of money into a trailer (and was subsequently divorced by my spouse and beaten to death by my children whose tuition payments I failed to make as a result of my spendthrift ways) I am not sure how many people would see it.  Yes, I know they are out there on YouTube but that is a huge pond and trailers are little fish.  How can I be certain that potential readers would ever see my trailer?  Many of the trailers I looked at had low “views” numbers.  Of course I could put the trailer on my website as well, but presumably if I have managed to lure some unsuspecting potential reader to my site the blurb for my novel will provide her with the best way of gauging both the content of my book and her interest in it.  There simply needs to be a better and more direct forum for readers to browse trailers before I would consider pouring cash into one.

I will close by admitting I saw some good trailers—trailers that did their authors and the books they represented proud.  Even so, I have no way of knowing whether or not those book trailers were effective in interesting readers and generating sales.  So I am back where I started, no book trailer for me.  Unless one of you wants to point out my errors of reasoning.  Any takers?  The comment section is wide open.  Do you use book trailers to select books?  Has a trailer ever sold you a novel you didn’t already intend to buy anyway?

Everybody mispronounces a word or uses a malapropism now and again (well, not again in this scenario).  Lighten up people.

Oh, and have a marvelous Labor Day weekend!