Beth Camp Historical Fiction

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

The Seventh Tapestry: Arthur's Seat

Even as I work on plotting and character sketches (without writing a single scene!), starting this new story, The Seventh Tapestry, is fun.

Today you'll find some possible scenes around Edinburgh that just might appear in my new story.

First, my intrepid heroine, Sandra Robertson, art appraiser/curator transplanted from San Francisco to Edinburgh, loves to hike. So wouldn't she follow that slow, steep walkway up Arthur's Seat just past Holyrood Abbey?

Arthur's Seat (Image Wikipedia)
In 2009, as part of researching Standing Stones, Allen and I spent a month in Edinburgh. How we loved the view from the stop of Arthur's Seat, looking back over Edinburgh. Arthur's Seat, a very popular site for hiking and rock climbing, was rumored to be the site of King Arthur's Camelot or perhaps that place where a dragon once landed for a nap and never woke up.

View from Arthur's Seat (Camp 2009)
Would Sandra (as we did) meander the afternoon away, sidestepping those who climb the sometimes treacherous rocks of what was once, millions of years ago, a volcano. Would she discover the ruins of St. Anthony's Chapel?

Ruins of St. Anthony's Chapel (Camp 2009)
Perhaps she would follow the trail down the back side of Arthur's Seat, to a small lake, complete with geese.

Path down from Arthur's Seat (Camp 2009)

Scottish Geese at Arthur's Seat (Camp 2009)
The Seventh Tapestry jumps ahead to the 21st Century, so these photos I took visiting Scotland nearly ten years ago, inspire me to think about the neighborhoods we visited and what Sandra Robertson might see and do where we once walked.

In the next few blog posts, you'll find other neighborhoods we explored, including Holyrood Palace/Abbey, Lawnmarket, and New Town. If you've visited Edinburgh, what was your favorite place and why?

Read more about Arthur's Seat at The Scotsman (Seven Facts . . . )

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

March IWSG: On Celebrating the Writing

After three years of research and writing, and another half a year spent in deep revision, my latest novel is complete and published. In Rivers of Stone, my intrepid heroine, disguised as a boy, treks across 19th Century Canada during the fur trading era on a quest to find her husband.

I can't say we exactly celebrated this achievement because we were too busy packing our suitcases.

On January 8, we dashed off to the Yucatan and the beautiful, quiet colonial town of Merida to escape winter snow. After seven weeks in Mexico, somehow between visiting Mayan ruins, exploring Yucatecan cuisine, and bird-watching flamingos, my next writing project emerged.

Source: Wikipedia
I'm excited because so much of this project is new. I've got a title, The Seventh Tapestry, a blurb, a draft cover, an expanded plot summary, and I'm beginning to work on character sketches. The work seems to go slowly because my normal process is more intuitive, rather like a flea jumping from scene to scene instead of working up a more formal plot summary. But inspired by Randy Ingermanson's Snowflake method, my characters are starting to breathe. They have their own quirks.

After writing three novels set in mid-19th Century, this new project is taking me in totally different directions. I wanted to work on a lighter story, something contemporary, maybe easier to write, more entertaining, and with that elusive happy-ever-after ending. Now the story is pulling together exotic locales (Edinburgh and Paris), characters who are risk takers but still willing to fall in love, and the plot plays out against the backdrop of antiquities sold illegally on the black market. At odd moments, I wonder: "Can I do justice to this story?"

This month's ISWG question asks, "How do you celebrate completing a story?" Don't we all have those moments of sheer joy, that sense of accomplishment as we hit each deadline and cross each benchmark?

As an indie writer, after the writing and revision is complete, I need to identify those action steps that lead to successful publishing and marketing the finished novel. That 'first blush' celebratory moment doesn't last very long. If I'm lucky, it transforms to an underlying sense that all is well. I move on to the next story, hopefully keeping all else in balance.

May the month be a good one for you. 

Thanks to Alex Cavanaugh and to those stalwart assistants -- Mary Aalgaard, Bish Denham, Jennifer Hawes, Diane Burton, and Gwen Gardner -- for facilitating this month's Insecure Writer's Support Group! keep writing. Or, at the least, planning that next story.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

#4: Winter in Mérida

I’m sitting in the roof garden
of the colonial house we rented here in Mérida,
a snowbird from the dry, cold lands of the north,
listening to an anonymous neighbor play
random classical piano, the notes filling the air,
as swifts and an occasional pigeon fly above me
in the cooling evening winds.  

Our rented house is built of Maya stone.
Inside, thick-cut square blocks frame doors,
exposed walls of rubble stretch to ceilings,
fans circle slowly, and
twenty feet above me, railroad ties
hold up the roof. When it’s too hot and humid,
a dipping pool awaits.  

This house rests on history, as does the city:
in 1542, Francisco de Montejo ordered the temples of T'hó torn down,
its hand-carved stones used to build Spanish palaces,
European style, superimposed on the same square,
under the same sun;
the Maya and their children, enslaved and slaughtered,
their precious books burned,
of thousands of codices, only four survive,
as did the Maya through the rise and fall of henequén plantations.

Today, this sad history plays out on the walls of the Governor’s Palace,
Castro Pacheco’s massive murals, perhaps inspired by Diego Rivera,
teach us the brutality of colonialism.
Yet, the people,
descendants of Spaniards and Maya, mixtos,
welcome temporary visitors, expats, and short-timers.
We visit what remains of the old cities of the Maya,
stand in awe under the ceibo tree and swim in cenotes.
Museums carefully display artifacts, a replica of a codex,
weather-worn stone gods, with notes in Spanish, English, and Mayan.

Some of the old mansions in the Centro are restored, some yet crumble,
their rock roots revealed. And, as the night sky descends, 
cloud jaguars race from the west along the horizon. 

House of the Artists, Merida (February 2018)

Merida Central Plaza (February 2018)

As we come to an end of our time here in Mérida, I wanted to write a poem that captures some sense of what we have experienced here -- with special thanks to the Merida Writers' Group for their suggestions.

But I left out one of the most amazing cuisines: Yucatecan food. Mayan tradition. Delicious. Mexican pastries from the local bakery (our favorite, something we dubbed 'cheeseballs', a ball of pastry wrapped around a kind of cream cheese). And another favorite for breakfast: Motuleños. Eggs over black beans, tortillas, topped with rich goat cheese and a mild tomato sauce. This dish, prepared by the fabulous cooks at Maiz, Canela, y Cilantro, is  served with sauteed plantains.

Thursday, February 08, 2018

Feb IWSG: Digging into New Projects

The short month of February begins as we, snowbirds, have just two weeks left here in Merida, Mexico, before we return to the land of snow. This week in Merida, the temperatures will average a high of 90F, we'll go to see flamingos again at Celestun, and, somehow I'll keep working on my new writing project.

In THE SEVENTH TAPESTRY, grad student Sandra Robertson wins a art internship at the Museum of Edinburgh in Scotland. Little does she know that her life will change as she discovers a mystery medieval tapestry, originally destined for the black market.

Romantic suspense (with a historical twist) is a new genre for me. Most of this month, I've explored ways to improve my plotting and character descriptions -- before I start writing.

Inspired by Randy Ingermanson's SNOWFLAKE, I started off with a 'concept blurb' that tells the entire story of the proposed novel in a few paragraphs. Then, with a deep breath, I shared this concept with a local writers' group here in Merida and a few trusted online writers with one question: Will readers be drawn to this story? Happily, the response was positive, with one writer commenting,"Readers love a quirky female lead." So, I'm poised between plotting, research, and drafting those character descriptions for the next several weeks.

Another challenge surfaced as I began describing the villain. I'm not sure I have enough research yet to define who the 'bad guy' is. I don't want to stereotype a person or a particular type, or even a country, and I don't know enough about the black market for art, other than it is roughly a $2 billion/year enterprise. Who would buy art from the black market? How far would that buyer be willing to go, if thwarted?

Back to the villain itself. Aren't there really two types of villains? There's the 'beast out of the closet' that terrifies the child in us. And there's the venial villain who makes a series of decisions, sometimes through choice, sometimes by compulsion, each step just a little push against whatever is within us that we call integrity.

Yes, I would like to improve my writing productivity. That is a fancy way of saying: Wouldn't it be nice if it didn't take 3 years to write one of my novels. But this new story is deliciously rich in history (contemporary mixed with 15th Century); settings (maybe a trip back to Scotland and Paris); and several new-to-me occupations (Scottish police, Interpol, Museum appraisers/acquisitions). I can also add the challenge of writing in a slightly different genre, romantic suspense.

That brings me back around to IWSG's question for this month: What do you love about the genre you write in most often? For me, writing historical fiction is the opportunity to explore perhaps a familiar place but through the lens of a different time. That focusing in on "what was life like then?" is endlessly fascinating. How did people survive and build a good life in spite of tumultuous change? What was life like for women in this time? How do social values change? How do we affirm our sense of integrity and a sense of direction through reading about the past? What makes some people strive and achieve their dreams, despite overwhelming challenges?

Who says writers don't have fun?

Check out the Internet Writer's Support Group for its monthly blog challenge (and other helpful resources). A special thank you to Alex Cavannaugh for founding the IWSG and to co-hosts for the February 7 posting of the IWSG are Stephen Tremp, Pat Garcia, Angela Wooldridge, Victoria Marie Lees, and Madeline Mora-Summonte.

Flamingo in flight, Celestun (February 2018)

Monday, January 29, 2018

Merida #3: On Swimming in a Cenote

All I knew before we slipped on bathing suits
and stood under cold showers,
is that we were on an adventure,
you and me, traveling so far,
some forty years, to this place,
just outside Chichen Itza, Mexico,
to swim in a cenote.

From above, we peered at people below, anonymous dots,
several hundred feet down, encircled by limestone,
waterfalls, and long, tree roots searching for water.
We hiked down the stone staircase,
down and around, and down again
to float and splash in this black water alive with
history, for here, Mayans once came
in a time of drought. 
In some such sacred pools, cenotes sagrada,
the salt water and fresh mingle in the clearest blue,
blurring vision. The cenote connects a network
of underground caves, a doorway opens
quite properly to another world.
Researchers have found artifacts of obsidian,
turquoise, and jade, woven textiles,
and the bones of young boys.
What was lost in joy or sorrow, we still cannot decipher.
Not even the tears of the elders
could stop the Spanish from burning the codices, 
precious books. 

I cannot account for history. 
Today, it is enough to float on my back 
atop this precious water, thankful
for the waterfall tumbling down, the sky above all,
and you beside me 
for this day.

Cenote X-cajum (January 2018)
Our day trip to Chichen-Itza, where one of the sacred cenotes is located, included a side-trip to X-cajum, a nearby cenote. We were the only ones in our group to actually walk down that stone staircase to swim in the cenote. I didn't stay long, for the water was cold but curiously buoyant. 

Later I read of divers who explore the underground caves of water and who, every year, lose their way. Perhaps they can no longer see, when halocine (that mix of salt and fresh water) blurs their vision. In a similar way, time blurs our understanding of what really happened, what people believed then, and what caused them to consider these cenotes sacred, life-giving and life-taking waters.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Merida #2: At La Casa de Frida

I've long read and appreciated the paintings and writings of Frida Kahlo. Here in Merida, images of Frida appear everywhere. A young woman, who showed us through a restaurant/bar called Pancho's festooned with paintings of revolutionaries and Frida, called her 'the first lady of Mexico'.

So when we found a little cafe called La Casa de Frida on a side street, we stopped for refreshments. Later that night, this poem came:

At La Casa de Frida, Merida

I could sit in this small cafe for many hours,
surrounded by bright pink walls, my cafe con leche cooling.
Your face is painted on the table, on the backs of chairs.
Replicas of your paintings hang on every wall, and in the corner,
small, almost overlooked, a photograph of you and Diego,
both of you smiling.

Who knows of you today? You embraced the exotic,
put on vestidos of flowers, and adopted monkeys as your children.
Nearly unable to walk, you surrounded yourself with radicals,
argued with them, slept with them, and what?
Where did you find faithfulness, except in your art?

You painted yourself through pain,
over and over, a thousand bites, a few small nips,
rejection, repudiation, no mentors, no friends.
No one wanted anything from you, except
to lie beside you, to drink up your passion,
and then to abandon you, finally, to that small blue house.
Only Diego walks along that quiet street each day,
so many blocks to your garden, your respite,
your landscapes dwindle to arranged fruits.

When you die, sadness spreads everywhere,
for you were the first woman to paint
those lifelong connections so fragile,
between then and now, between politics and art,
between love and betrayal.
And so I sit, musing about the past and my future,
brushes forgotten, words not ever enough to say
your struggle to make art 
meant something to me.

At La Casa de Frida, Merida, January 2018

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Merida #1: Settling In . . .

We've been in Merida now since late Monday night. It was a very long flight. We started our day at 4am and arrived happily in Merida about 1am. Tuesday was pretty much a lost day of catching up, warmly welcomed by Pepe and Leann of Merida Rentals and an amazing array of information. We already feel at home.

Our new house for the next two months is a curious combination of comfort and a sense of Mayan culture with sculptures, paintings, and those richly embroidered, bright pillows that delight the eye. Everywhere, this historic and restored house has surprising features. For example, the shower is set up as if I were standing beneath a waterfall. 

Our house is located on a busy side street in the central historic district. We close large, wooden shutters for privacy.  In the evening, when cool breezes move in from the sea, we sit on a rooftop patio, swinging in hammocks. In the morning, I'll take my coffee outside in a little patio, overlooking a tiny 'dipping' pool with its own fountain. 

Patio next to dipping pool and stairs to rooftop patio
La Casa Barenda, Merida
The traffic becomes a background noise, like the sound of the sea, broken by moments of traditional Mexican music from a passing taxi. Inside, fans keep us cool. It's very tranquil. No schedule. No expectations. No deadlines.

This quiet Wednesday morning, I feel free to make my own routine, to take the time to listen, to reflect, and to simply be still. In this very new place, I move more slowly through the morning, trying to decide where to write. 

Yes, it's comforting to check in with FaceBook and with family and friends now far away. Normally, all else is background until my writing is done. But this morning hints at new stories. Maybe this is a part of being retired, outside that daily commute and far from meetings (thank goodness!). But I just may find a new writing project here in this land of sun. Sometimes it's good to step away from the known.

A final thought: How the internet has changed our sense of connectedness, of community. The last time we were in Merida, some 20 years ago, we would have waited in line and then crammed into a telephone booth to talk to our daughter, her voice echoing. Now, she is a text away. As is all else. So I'm relishing this morning quiet even as I look forward to exploring this vibrant city a little later today.

If you have traveled in the Yucatan, any suggestions? Travel tips? So far, I'm in love with Google Maps as all I have to do is enter in the name of the restaurant or museum and follow the dotted lines to easily find the location. 

May all be well where you are!