Building Character

I was privileged to lead a reflection on Saturday, for a group of Christian writers who would have spent the weekend at Scargill House in Yorkshire. Although our weekend had been cancelled, a number of us wanted to use the opportunity to meet virtually, so we did some writing challenges together and encouraged each other with reflections. Philip Davies gave a great reflection on calling as a writer. I decided to do something on character, and this is a summary of the reflection I gave.

What is your character?

Has lock-down given you the chance to become more aware of your own strengths and weaknesses?

Has the rhythm of lock-down highlighted aspects of your personality?

Has it revealed areas for growth? If so, are you considering how to grow?

If you were a character in a story, how would the author write about you?

I’ve certainly become aware of parts of my own personality through the past three months or so. Areas where I need more patience, or action, or humility, or wisdom, or grace. Areas where I’ve been improving, and areas which still need a lot of work doing. I want to grow and learn and be the best character I can be. Lock-down is certainly showing up my true character.

Strange verses

I got to thinking about Bible verses and some of the stories that are told within the Bible which use vivid metaphors for characters. Take one of my favourite verses, Daniel 8:21, for example. A verse many people should know by heart, I believe:

“The shaggy goat is the King of Greece”

A super verse to take out of context, and a bizarre one in any event. It forms part of an explanation for a vision, where the character of a person is described in terms of a violent animal. The animal metaphor is a punchy and descriptive.

It is not the only time metaphors are used in the Old Testament to describe people’s characters. There is a lovely fable in Judges 9:8-15 where the people of Shechem want to appoint a particular king, but are strongly advised not to. Jotham tells them a story to get his point across, and compares their situation to a group of trees trying to choose a king. The obvious candidates (olive, fig, vine) decline, and a wholly unsuitable thorn-bush is offered the position instead. Jotham uses the idea of a thorn-bush: unfruitful, undesirable for protection and unsafe, to make his point about his political opponent.

Fables concerning trees representing people may well have been a thing in the ancient Near East. There is a tiny story tucked into 2 Kings 14:9 along similar lines. The kings of Israel and Judah are squaring up to each other and the good king – Jehoash of Israel – sends a story to Amaziah that his intentions compare to a thistle wanting to marry the daughter of a cedar of Lebanon; a thistle which immediately gets trodden underfoot by a wild beast. Ouch.

Plants, Planets and Patroni

Being compared to a plant is one thing. Apocalyptic passages in the Old and New Testaments compare people to animals (real and imaginary) to make their points. Jesus uses the idea of wheat and weeds growing together in the same field in his parable in Matthew 13 and explains that the weeds are metaphors for those who belong to the evil one. To be compared to weeds is a grim indictment: these people are nuisances, sucking nourishment from the growing ‘wheat’ and holding no value in making bread (future blessing). However, though they try to prevent the good purposes from becoming established and succeeding, they will not win in the end. It is a great metaphor and the parable inspires hope.

Others have also used natural phenomena to enrich their stories and characters. I was thrilled when I learned about C.S. Lewis’ planet-based inspiration for each of the seven Narnia stories and how he extended and wove the characteristics through clever metaphors through each book. It is so subtle that the themes were not discovered until 2003 (see Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia).

Similarly, J.K. Rowling applies the characteristics of each patronus to the characters in her Harry Potter series:

Harry Potter | Patronuses

There are subtle cross-references and hints about the motives, qualities and strengths of each character in what Rowling writes.

I humorously queried the correct form of the plural of patronus with ACW friends and am very grateful to Susan Sanderson, who pointed out that ‘patroni’ should be the Latin plural. She looked it up in the Oxford Latin mini dictionary, where she found this definition: ‘protector, patron; pleader, advocate’. Amazingly, there seems to be a link with The Holy Spirit as our Patronus.

Metaphors for people in terms of an animal, plant, planet or other phenomenon have come and gone throughout human history and literature. What about writers though? Can we identify characteristics from a plant, for example, to apply to one of our own characters?

Satsuma

You could describe a satsuma as:

Colourful

Juicy

Soft and sweet

Just a little tangy

Fun

Small

Popular with children

Imagine a person who inhabited all these characteristics. Doing this gives me the image of a lovely nursery nurse, covered in paint and giggling with the children.

What characteristics would you associate with a potato? An olive? A banana?

It can be a useful exercise to start with a natural object to build up a character. To find commonalities and to extend the metaphor where that helps. Almost anything can be a muse, if you don’t take yourself too seriously.

God as Author

As a Christian, I believe God is the Creator of everything (Isaiah 40:28) and Author of salvation (Hebrews 2:10). Along with everything else in creation, I am merely a player in it; a created being with a role to play and a set of characteristics I didn’t get to choose. I have giftings and I have limits.

God writes the setting of creation, chooses my character identity and places me in the story. Along the way, my character is worked on and refined. Sometimes the Author is involved, sometimes not. I become who I become, either through my own giftings and limits, or my responses to them in the circumstances which arise. God does not write the fine detail – that is for me to create and edit myself, but he does assist with my character building when I ask. And sometimes, as in lock-down, external events mean that a lot of work is done on my character in a short space of time, a bit like living in a pressure cooker.

Give Me Faith — “Not only so, but we also glory in our ...

So, how has God written your character?

Has lock-down given you the chance to become more aware of God’s giftings and limits on your life?

Has the rhythm of lock-down highlighted who God has created you to be?

Has this time revealed areas for spiritual growth? If so, are you considering how to grow?

Has it revealed and evidenced God’s purposes being worked out in your life? Confirmed a calling? Challenged you?

How is God writing about you?

What metaphor(s) might God choose to identify who you are?

A prayer

Lord God, I recognise that I have unique strengths and weaknesses, passions, abilities and limits, each of which you have given me.

I thank you for all of them. I thank you for making me who I am.

There are parts of my personality I am especially grateful for. There are other parts which sadden me. Sometimes I see myself as a minor, insignificant character and I forget you are my author. You create me, form me, inspire and celebrate me.

Reveal today where you want to develop my character next, and how you want to use me in my situation. Enable me to bless others in their own callings.

May my life and character reflect you, Lord Jesus, to all I interact with.

In your precious name,

Amen

Noah’s Lockdown Diary

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Day 1

Well, this is truly unprecedented. The family have been stockpiling every conceivable edible thing and for the past week we’ve been taking in more and more foster animals. Ham asked me how much food I thought we’d need for us and all the animals, but I have no idea how long we need to lockdown. ‘It’s not my idea’, I told him. I’m just following official guidelines. Meanwhile, Shem has filled a whole cabin with toilet paper. Strange lad. No one has brought a corkscrew, so it looks like we won’t be cracking open any wine for the foreseeable.

I’m grateful that the family are rallying round now anyway. They do take up the room: maybe I should have measured a bit more carefully. Suddenly there’s elbows everywhere. We’ve divided up our limited area and everyone gets a bit of outdoor time each day, although there’s not a lot we can do about the smell indoors. I blame the pets. Mostly.

We have strict instructions not to leave, and I hope we will get through this without mishap.

Sounds like the rain has started.

Day 5

Well, that was a storm and a half.

I say was, but it’s still going. Decidedly soggy out.

Various neighbours have knocked on the door over the past few days. It’s a bit hard to hear them, so I climbed out on deck to call down and tell them they weren’t supposed to leave their own homes. Lots of shouting followed. It’s quite high up on deck, so pretty hard to tell what they are saying. If they are complaining about the smell, there’s not a lot I can do. If they are checking we are ok for food and toilet paper, that’s very kind, but really not necessary. Tried to explain this, but the near constant rain really interfered with communicating.

Day 17

Haven’t seen any neighbours for days. Probably for the best: they really ought to take this isolation thing seriously. Actually I’ve not been outside for a while. Rain was getting me down, and not enough space to dry out clothes inside.

Everyone is on a rota for the jobs that need doing. I was a little concerned to see quite how much I’d have to get done, as well as teaching my sons animal welfare, geography and woodwork. Am tempted to adjust the rota when no one else is looking.

Day 41

Finally, a day with no rain.

Looked out during my exercise hour and saw a rainbow. Had a little think and wondered what it all means.

Was startled by a runaway piglet splashing about on deck and spent most of my free time trying to catch the thing.

Jay said it was Ham. Ham said Shem let it loose. Shem blamed someone else, but I forget who; I had stern words and sent them all to their rooms. Five minutes later their mum told them to get back to their chores.  I would have said something, but I realised that I would be doing extra jobs if I didn’t keep my mouth shut.

Day 50

I’m really missing my friends. I used to meet up with several of them before all this started. The whole landscape has changed since then.

Also, I could really do with a haircut. Kids are joking I look like a yak.

Day 62

This is really getting tedious and most days just feel the same. Jay developed a cough, so is keeping to himself in his quarters. More work for the rest of us. Hmmph.

The wife pointed out that we are almost out of flour and she won’t be able to make any more bread soon. I didn’t want to mention that I don’t think there will be any more flour for quite a while. Even planting seed looks to be off the menu, so next year’s bread will be unusual. Might have to ration what’s left, or start eating some of the rabbits. I’m sure we didn’t start with that many.

Day 78

The wife has taken to knitting special beard masks for those of us who can still smell the animals. You put it over your mouth and nose when you feed or clean the animals. Can’t see it working, but I don’t like to upset her, now we are right out of flour. I didn’t ask where she got the wool from, although I noticed the llamas looked a little chilly last week.

I have been doing a spot of DIY and have designed and built a magnificent flagpole. Gets me outdoors and away from the lads – they will not stop squabbling! Might ask Mrs N to knit a flag if she gets time. You’d think you’d have lots of time in lockdown, but the days are all so busy.

Day 99

What a day! Ham went for a swim and we nearly lost him. How many times do I have to tell the boys ‘Stay Safe – Stay Indoors’? It’s not a suggestion: it’s a strict instruction. He did look a little drippy when we fished him out. Said he regretted it, but that he was feeling so claustrophobic. I do understand, of course. Being stuck inside so much, I have taken to eating more. Good thing I like rabbit.

The wife made me a flag. It took her a while, as she wanted it to be colourful – like a rainbow, she told me. ‘What do you mean?’ I asked her, but she went zooming off to do something else. Sat and talked with God a bit: the only part of the day which is making any sense now.

Day 121

It does feel like things are going to be very different after all this. The sky has been bluer, the stars clearer and water around us is cleaner. Except of course when Jay and Ham empty the buckets from the stalls. You do not want to be downwind of that!

Am getting rather fed up with rabbit stew, if I’m honest.

Tried plaiting my beard. Not really helping. I keep tripping over it. The yak doesn’t have this problem, I noticed.

Day 150

We are no longer floating, but it’s not clear why.

My beard is now so long the wife is talking about using it for making some new vests. Three-piece suit, more like!

Day 224

It might be our imagination, but it does look as though there are some little islands emerging around us. Jay said they must be the tops of mountains. Ham disagreed, as mountains have snow on the top. Shem laughed at him. Another squabble ensued. I will be glad to see the back of this lot and have a nice quiet drink when this is all over. Saw another rainbow as the sun was setting – wish I knew what God was up to. Asked, but all was quiet.

Day 264

Jay was right. The islands look much more like the tops of mountains now, although these are no mountains I can ever remember seeing. Not that I ever travelled much.

Still, before all this I was quite a different person I suppose. These things change you.

I released a raven. It didn’t come back; the boys thought it was rather foolish of me, so I let out a dove as well. Poor thing couldn’t find anything it wanted, and got tired, so flew back to the safety of lockdown with the rest of us. I wonder what it saw. Probably should have sent a parrot.

Day 271

Tried another release today with Joanie, my favourite dove. She didn’t disappoint; she returned an hour or so later with a fresh branch of olive in her beak. I realise now that I should have spent the last year training at least one type of bird to retrieve things for us. It would have come in especially handy. I’d love an actual olive. Haven’t had proper fresh food for months.

I’m not upset though. The branch is important – the wife will no doubt stick it in the scrap book.

Day 278

You can’t train a dove in seven days, it turns out. Joanie flew off today and didn’t return. I suppose this is a good thing, but I had hoped she would try and bring some proper fresh olives for us.

The boys are constantly asking how much longer until we leave this place. I’m not sure – still waiting on official guidance on that. Also I need to flatten my curve, as I don’t seem to fit into all my clothes any more. Can’t be seen out looking like this!

Day 314

Must say, it is looking a lot safer out there. Land is lovely and fresh, very few puddles.

Day 370

Lockdown is over – Praise God!

We got official notice today that we could leave here. Also all the animals we brought with us and haven’t yet eaten.

Feels so weird to be back out again.

Some bright spark suggested a barbecue. I thought it would be a good time to honour God for rescuing us from harm, so we sacrificed some animals on there. After the stinky animal pens (and family) it smelt particularly good.

Spent some time praying while the others walked about and when I looked up I saw another rainbow. Felt strangely satisfied. It occurred to me that God will restore the world and will look after all of us – people, animals, plants, everything he has created. I finally realised what the rainbow is about. It is like a gate between harm and salvation, a door from fear to joy. God wanted me to understand that he cares about all living creatures and won’t allow us to be utterly destroyed. He rescued us, even though it took a while and the journey was hard. He has good plans in the days to come and is far more powerful and beautiful than I previously realised. I can see that he was present with us throughout our difficult time.

I still have problems, mind. No idea what to do with the massive pile of remaining toilet paper, now there’s no one to sell it all on to. And my curve hasn’t flattened enough. It’s not going to help that I do think the olives down the hill might now be ready to pick…

rainbow_4
Images (c) Quentin Blake, 2020

 

 

The Crown Virus

Do you know what COVID-19 looks like?

If you were to look closely – and I mean really closely – with a scanning electron microscope, you’d see a shape like this:

corona
Image credit NIAID-RML

The virus is a bundle of proteins and RNA, held together with fats which dissolve when you wash with soap. It is called a coronavirus because some of the proteins stick out like the points of a crown.

Here’s the curious thing: crown is essentially the same word as corona. I hadn’t made that linguistic connection before last month. I knew that corona was a shape made around the sun in a total eclipse, and that the beer of the same name has a logo with a crown on it. But I do love learning, and I especially love words, so I investigated.

The root words

The word corona goes back a long way, and has cognates in many languages. This is because corona is Latin for ‘crown’,

which sounds like the ancient Greek κορώνη (korṓnē) for ‘curved’,

but means more like the ancient Greek κορυφή (koruphḗ): ‘garland, wreath or crown’.

The two Greek words look and sound a bit similar, but are not identical. 

κορώνη sounds like corona and actually means all kinds of things which are not crowns but which have hooked or curved features. For example: crows, door handles, the tip of a bow on which the string is hooked, the curved stern of a ship, but also various other examples.

κορυφή, which is nearer in meaning, also indicates the top of a head or a mountain, the vertex of a triangle or a most excellent thing.

You could see how both words could combine in people’s minds to mean a physical crown. A curved reward for excellence, placed on the top of someone’s head.

File:Bust woman mosaic Met 38.11.12.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
Corona glory

I couldn’t stop there though. 

As a biblical scholar, I wondered whether these Greek words appear in the New Testament at all. After all, crowns certainly do. 

It turns out, they don’t. Not properly. If you want more on this, see ‘a diversion for etymologists’ below. 

Perhaps the root of the word is not the way to look at this. Perhaps we should look at the word ‘crown’ itself in the Bible if we want to learn something interesting. 

Crowns

This is, in fact, where the studying becomes more relevant and helpful. 

The Hebrew of the OT and the Greek of the NT are full of examples of crowns and references to crowning. Overwhelmingly, these crowns have positive connotations.

Kings are crowned.

Esther receives a royal crown.

Mankind is crowned with glory and honour (Psalm 8), with love and compassion (Psalm 103), with everlasting joy (Isaiah 51) and with beauty instead of ashes (Isaiah 61).

Paul and James and Peter talk of crowns of reward for those who persevere (1 Corinthians 9, 2 Timothy 2, James 1, 1 Peter 5).

The most startling crown though was the crown which Jesus wore in the gospels.

It was not an athlete’s garland or a royal circlet. It was a cruel crown.

A crown of thorns. A crown which mocked him and humbled him.

A crown I would never want to wear.  

A crown, however, which arrests the attention of all who look at it. What is that doing there? A reverse crown. An anti-glory moment. Pure humiliation.

We’ve just experienced the most unusual Easter of our lifetimes. A crowned virus threatens us and mocks our normal routines. Those in power are shown to be as weak as the rest of us, and the new heroes are the small people in society. The ones who keep us alive, fed and resourced.

Coronavirus has turned society upside down and shown us where crowns truly belong. 

Not with the strong, but the weak, the humble and the ones who love at all costs. Where we once wanted to celebrate the biggest and bravest, we find common respect for and applaud those who give everything for others.

A crown of thorns is not a sign of humiliation when you consider it properly. It is a sign that God comes alongside those who offer everything and does exactly the same.

Personal Reflection | “believe, teach, and confess”

 

 

 


 

A diversion for etymologists

The koine Greek of the New Testament uses two other words for ‘crown’. Most of the time στέφανος (stéphanos) indicating a reward, and a few times in Revelation διάδημα (diádēma), a royal crown.

In Luke 12 ravens feature as a topic for consideration: even without sowing or reaping they are fed. The word used in the Greek in Luke is κόρᾰξ (kórax), cognate with κορώνη – the nearest you’ll find to corona in the New Testament.

I did find that in the Greek translation of the Old Testament – the Septuagint – which predates the New Testament writings, our two Greek corona terms are used a handful of times. 

κορώνη is used in Jeremiah 3:2 where the word actually refers to a kind of highwayman. Not particularly helpful, you’d suppose. It is possible that a highwayman is being compared to a crow or raven, of course, reaping where it did not sow. 

κορυφή is found six times in the Septuagint, each time used to translate the Hebrew lemma root רֹאשׁ (rosh) demonstrating some variations in meaning found across both words: 

  • the summit or peak of a mountain (Exodus 17: 9,10; 19:20) 
  • top of the head (Genesis 49:26, Deuteronomy 33:16)
  • the head itself (Proverbs 1:9).

Lovely. What does all this prove though?

It tells me that the roots of the word ‘corona’ do not have a helpful biblical background if you want to prove anything. There is not even a clear connection with רֹאשׁ as this lemma is used 599 times in the OT, and only translated to κορυφή on six occasions. 

Giving up giving up

Ooooh, it’s Lent.

And today it’s also the Feast of St Valentine, which conveniently has Lent right there in the middle of it.

Or, if you like, A loveseat tent sniff, which is a useful anagram for the day.

Not often that Lent starts on Valentine’s Day, and as Easter Sunday falls on 1st April, this year Lent is bookended with love and joy.

I like that.

Image result for psalm 90 14

A lot of people I know try and discipline themselves over the season of Lent by giving something up. While their efforts are laudable, sensible and often far too health-conscious for regular humans like me, I don’t feel comfortable with the idea of refraining from something I enjoy and feel nourished or sustained by, unless I feel convicted by God to do it (i.e. fasting, from food, drink, social media or the like). There are times when God asserts his place by insisting on our attentions. Food, drink, even facebook, are not to become more important than God. But neither are those other precious things in life: partners, children or oxygen. And while I put God ahead of my husband, my children and the air I breathe, I don’t honestly think he is asking me to forgo them for six weeks. The family may be a little confused and upset, for a start.

Fasting has its place. Giving something up for Lent often has its place when God convicts us, but if it is about a personal detox, it is not a spiritual endeavour. Perhaps some people, in their earnest desires to improve themselves, have made ‘giving up’ a bigger deal than ‘getting close to God’. They want to see whether they can manage to accomplish something valuable but difficult. Great. For me though, I want a closer relationship with God. Sometimes he will want me to give something up. Sometimes he will want me to take something up.

For me, Jesus took up human flesh and frailty. For me, he took up the cross. In my experience, God has been wonderfully generous through the many ups and downs of life; multiplying grace and love over and over. He has sometimes put barriers up, but these have been wise and reasonable, even when I did not like them. He has sometimes allowed times of pain, but his presence has been close and his promises have endured.

In Jewish thought, the idea of stopping on the Sabbath and not working is not viewed as negative, but positive. The Sabbath rest is a proactive feasting and renewing time. Our best celebrations do the same.

So I will give up giving up. This Lent I am going to try finishing a few tasks.

  • I want to finish sorting the children’s artwork from the past ten years.
  • I want to finish getting the garage in order.
  • I want to complete several books I am in the middle of. And get promised book reviews to Amazon.

I am a great starter of tasks. Now I am going to learn to be a great finisher of tasks too. God has shown me that he continues with me, though I am still a work in progress. He will complete the task and what he starts, he finishes.

What about you? Have you got any tasks you are hoping to complete over Lent? Or any interesting Lent activities or fasts you are taking part in? Do comment below!

 

Friday 500 -Babel

‘Hot, today, innit?’ said Nim to Ard one Monday morning as the white sun started baking the ground, their backs, their thoughts.

‘Very hot. Pass me those bricks mate, don’t hang about!’ Ard replied. ‘Any plans for this evening then?’

‘Not a lot, eat a few onions, drink my beer, usual stuff.’

‘Your wife burn the bread again today then?’ Ard joked. Nim rolled his eyes and dropped the bricks at his feet.

‘Watch it! I don’t want to have them falling off the scaffold at this height!

‘Next lot’s coming up. Get a move on!’

And there was evening. And there was morning.

‘Hoot, today, onnit?’ said Nim to Ard that Tuesday morning as the white sun started baking the ladders, their foreheads, their minds.

‘What?’ replied Ard. ‘Hoot? Hetta, doncha mean? Hetta dayday no-yes? Givvit me claycakes.’

‘Comcom?’

‘Claycakes, look there!’

‘Oh.’

‘Twilighting you foodalls dayday?’

‘Foodalls?’

‘Beer?’

‘Oh, beer! Beer happytum, laughyes. Here claycakes.’

‘Ow! You get blackbread dayday? Ha!’

‘Blackbread?’

‘Oi, watchdrop please. Not clever dropping here now. You strange dayday.’

‘Nexty nexty.’

And there was evening. And there was morning.

On Wednesday morning the white sun rose above the mountains, baking the bricks, the tools, the flies, before Nim and Ard arrived at the building site. Ard was hobbling and leaning on a crutch. Nim had hardly slept. His wife had been talking nonsense to him all evening.

‘Hoot, onnit?’ Nim said to Ard.

‘Hetta,’ Ard growled back.

‘Lookit yours leghand. Whatisit?’ Nim pointed to Ard’s foot, wrapped in rags.

Ard glared at him.

‘Claycakes me foot givvit, dimboy!’

‘Oh.’

‘Leghand yours paingreat if it now?’

Ard glared again. Nim turned and picked up a brick.

‘Up now woodroad to tippytoppy, mate.’

Ard growled again and started climbing. Nim followed, his bag of burnt bread swinging from his back. He would have to have words with his wife again. What was she thinking letting his bread burn every day this week?

And there was evening. And there was morning.

On Thursday the white sun rose high in the sky, baking the sand, the roofs, the snakes, before Nim got to the building site. Ard was nowhere to be seen. Nim loaded bricks on to the pulley and started climbing the ladder. As he reached the top he stopped for a rest and a quick drink. Nim opened his bag and looked inside. His flask of beer was getting warm. And something else was wrong. There was a stone instead of a loaf of bread. A large white stone. At least it wasn’t burnt, he thought. He took it out, scratched his head and dropped it over the side of the scaffold.

Far below, a cry of pain and indignation rang out.

meister_der_weltenchronik_001

 

‘Donkeybread!’ said Nim to himself.He stayed up the scaffold for the rest of the day.

And there was evening. And there was morning.

On Friday, the white sun climbed again and hung, baking the stones, the fields, the dry mouths.

Nim packed his bag.

 

Friday 500 -Wrestling with an Idea all Night

Because his wife had fallen for them, he had bought the two kittens. One a ginger tom, the second his smaller, scrawny grey-white tabby brother.

roof-kittens

And, because he was a writer and insisted on naming them, they became Esau and Jacob. So, when Esau began bringing home kills and expecting more attention, he found the humour and tickled his chin and forgot to chide him. And when Jacob tried to assert himself he laughed and let them chase and playfight under his feet in his messy writing den. Invariably Esau would end up with the reading chair, licking his tail and turning to stare, while Jakey rolled on his back and teased the curtain with his claws.

The nights were always the best time to write. The cats kept him company too, occasionally curling on his lap or nosing into empty mugs. Deep in the quiet dark, the rattling purr of a happy cat kept him going when the ideas were thin. His wife was far better than he was at the feeding and cleaning out, but he was the first to notice that Jakey had gone missing. Esau of course wasn’t for telling why. He’d always been that more aloof and hated sharing in any case. So when, one night in the winter, only four ginger paws crept into the warmth of the den, he looked over his glasses and scratched his head.

The ideas didn’t come so well that night. Even in the morning there was no sign of Jakey and the writer’s wife said she’d ask around.

There was nothing.

Missing Jakey impacted on him more than he thought it could. Esau grew fatter, and redder. The words he wrote each night weren’t funny any longer. The muse had gone and his imagination started playing tricks on him. Could he have been hit by a car? The nights were not as friendly, not as productive, sometimes even painful, so he considered stopping.

His wife encouraged him. They hadn’t heard anything or seen a body. Sometimes cats just go off wandering. Perhaps he should write about it. Or go for a walk. Or have a nice hot bowl of soup.

The soup was tempting.

It was some time later, during a night of slow words, that he heard the brawling, the breeowling, the hhhreow of the brother cats in the garden. The ideas he had been wrestling over for hours were gone in a moment as he rushed to open the back door, looking out to see exactly what was going on. Esau had his back to him. Jacob was there, alert, devious. Both were singing now, arching and staring at each other, tails flickering. Claws were out, paws extended. The writer stepped out, called out. A moment of contact, a chase, and then Jacob ran through the open door, straight into the den and on to the chair. It was his. He sat licking his hip as the writer returned with a chuckle and sat to write.

Research Threads

My work in progress is set in an ancient culture, around the time the Bronze Age was transitioning to the Iron Age.

This has rather significant implications for me as a researcher. Unlike writing a chick lit set in the immediate future or a dragonfest in an alternative fantasy world, I cannot look around me for facts or set my imagination free. Both of these would be far quicker, and those who write historical fiction of any sort are known to take longer over it. Instead, I’ve been keen to show real discipline in what I’m doing, having a firm idea about what is known and what isn’t about this particular place and time.

Today on the BBC news website you can see an example of genuine Bronze Age material. This stuff really happened and it’s someone’s handiwork from some 150 generations ago. Great quality fabric too, apparently. The finds on site are remarkable.

whittleseyfabric

There are elements of the world of 3000 years ago which have not survived, but I need to know enough in order not to leave gaping holes. Much of the time it feels like we have tiny pieces of the bigger jigsaw. We may have some writings, or shards of pottery, or fragments from archaeological digs, or contemporaneous evidence, but we don’t know everything. It’s tantalising. I would love to know more about the human side of the stories: the secrets, the unrecorded folklore, the family recipes, even the patterns on the clothing. What of the everyday stories of the people too unimportant to feature in the bigger scene? I think a lot of readers of historical fiction want to know details about those who never got recorded. Perhaps it validates all of us. All of us have a story, however little. When did our ancestors wake, and what did they do all day? How structured were their taskseat and how much did that vary in practice? Did people think outside the box much? How brutal were the battles, the seasons, the relationships, in comparison to the safe and settled life I lead? I have so little in common with them, and yet I want to find enough common ground to feel a connection. When did people usually eat? How often did they wash? What wooden or cloth items did they own? These organic details don’t usually leave clues, despite finds like those at Must Farm, above. Sometimes there is some great research to put you in the picture, such as Nathan MacDonald’s What Did Ancient Israelites Eat?  which is a readable academic assessment of the food of land of Israel (going to show it really wasn’t flowing with milk or honey).

This is how I see my task:

Known facts Unknowns
Can I invent details? Cannot invent details if they contradict known facts Justified, in context, after researching well
Can I ignore details? Ignore irrelevant data which doesn’t move the story along

I have to do my research well (and there’s no excuse when you live near Cambridge).

The other extreme of course is to riddle a story with unnecessary archaeological facts, just to prove I did my homework. I’ve seen this done in various books and it looks weak. ‘Aha,’ cries Main Character to Antagonist, ‘I see you have modified the profile of your clay pots; are you in cahoots with the local slightly-more-advanced tribe now, or are you just feeling especially creative?’

It’s not just Facts. I am deeply interested in Words. You can’t, of course, use a modern idea or term like ‘cahoots’ in a piece of imagined ancient dialogue unless your creativity is particularly free and your readers either forgiving or ignorant. I’ve set myself the task of wanting to communicate well about the way ancient people lived, including the kinds of things that they would naturally have been talking about and the range of vocabulary they would have used. Modern ways of thinking don’t belong in an ancient mindset, so I am immersing myself in the details I do have. As well as re-reading the Old Testament for clues (Leviticus suddenly shows itself useful regarding fabrics and rituals, for example), I am working through a list I compiled of all the Hebrew words used in the Old Testament (actually lemmas, to be precise). It is not as long as you might think – only a few thousand different word roots, and many of them interesting in their connections or their clues about ancient living.

So: words and facts. Much to read, think over, write about. To write as a fictitious story, because I believe fiction tells truth so much better than any other genre. Story works.

But how many lies, to tell the truth? There are also things it is reasonable to extrapolate, and things it is unreasonable to extrapolate. The human body works in certain ways and that hasn’t changed in that time. Seasons and geography are reasonably similar thousands of years on, though crops have changed. The way we think certainly has changed; we are impacted and influenced today by generations of Enlightenment, Modernism, Post-Modernism, international travel, historical understanding, instant communication. We are still as greedy and self-righteous as our ancient counterparts were recorded as being in the Bible. We also still see life through the lens of our own experiences. Is it fair to extrapolate back? Can one make assumptions, or do books about the past necessarily end up reflecting the writer’s time period or personal attitudes more than they do the real era in question?

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about this. I want a readable and genuinely interesting story. I also need to use my imagination a fair deal, in as informed a way as I possibly can.

If my book is aiming to be an Historical Fiction my research needs to be meticulous. Even the best historical fictions have limits and anachronisms. Writers disagree on how much creative licence they should have, but readers aren’t stupid. Perhaps it will be better suited as Literary Fiction in an historical setting; equally as demanding to write, but better suited to introspection, characters and style. I don’t want it to be categorised as Biblical Historical Fiction even though it is informed by, and ought to be able to inform, biblical reading. Genre does matter, and I have some thoughts on where it is heading, but for now I still have quite a fair bit of reading to do.

Multiple Codas

‘The End,’ my son began.

‘OK, that’s all then,’ I smiled. He had only just started reading the next section of his school book.

‘It’s not really the end, mummy,’ he told me with all the authority  of One Who Is Six. ‘Not The End. It’s just the end of the dinosaurs, silly.’

dinoend

And the end of the dinosaurs was not the end of the story. It never is. There is usually some preamble in books about dinosaurs concerning Cretaceous, Jurassic, Triassic, the odd Tyrannosaurus Rex, a Diplodocus or two, Pterasaurs and similar words designed to frighten parents of children learning to read. But The End doesn’t come at the end. In Joe’s book this week it came about three-quarters of the way in. The End turned out to be the obligatory picture of a massive meteor bouncing violently against Earth some 65 million years ago. After The End there were several more pages: pictures of how fossils are formed, how they are discovered, and what dinosaur skeletons look like in museums. And it got me thinking again.

I was taught that a story has a Beginning, a Middle and an End.

But sometimes, it has a Beginning, a Middle, an End and Another End.

This is called a Multiple Coda. An extra little something. Jesus used it when telling the well-known story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15). The story ends when the wayward son returns home and his father puts on a party, ‘for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found’… all done; great. But not everything in the plot has been resolved. There is another brother who reacts and the story continues. He also gets a coda and a word from his father: ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours’. Scholars debated whether both endings belonged here, but once you study it you realise they do; it is a convention familiar to Jesus from many Old Testament narratives. Where there is more than one lack that needs liquidating the story takes more than one event to resolve it all at the end. For more on this, see Adele Berlin’s Poetics and Interpretation of Biblical Narrative (p.107), or more generally on the topic, Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative

I’ve noticed this convention more as I am made aware of it. On The Big Bang Theory episodes usually end with more than one final scene. It gives you warning that the ending is coming (brace yourself!) and uses the opportunity to resolve the storylines running in that particular show without having to do it all in one scene.

bbt

The work I’m doing and the way I am writing takes into account Old Testament narrative devices, so from time to time I will put more up on this blog about this. The conventions in OT narrative are rich and sometimes quite eye-opening.They will become part of my mid-week updates which serve to counter the 500 word short stories on Fridays I’m doing for fun. After some time working on the idea of writing, I’m now taking the plunge and getting on with it.

It is an exciting beginning.

One Tale to the Tune of Another

The Sons of Ham

The sons of Ham departed from the tents of their father and kissed their mothers and left to build cities in the land of the sons of Canine.

And the first son of Ham built a city in the fields of the sons of Canine.

With walls of straw he built it;

With barley and wheat he established it.

And the sons of Canine came to him and asked to trade but the firstborn son of Ham swore by his beard and by the beard of his father Ham that he would not trade or even allow the sons of Canine to enter his city. And so the sons of Canine cursed the son of Ham, saying,

“Though your settlement be strong in your eyes,

With our voices we will shout,

With the breath of our lungs we will cry out,

And your city will be utterly destroyed!”

At nightfall there was a violent wind and the city of the firstborn son of Ham was swept away, so that not even one bundle of straw remained on another.

And the second son of Ham built a city for himself in the forests of the sons of Canine.

With walls of wood he built it;

With cedar and oak he established it.

And the sons of Canine came to him and asked to trade but the son of Ham swore by his beard and by the beard of his father Ham that he would not trade or even allow the sons of Canine to enter his city. And so the sons of Canine cursed the son of Ham, saying,

“Though your settlement be strong in your eyes,

With our voices we will shout,

With the breath of our lungs we will cry out,

And your city will be utterly destroyed!”

At nightfall there was a great fire and a violent wind and the city of the son of Ham was utterly destroyed, so that not even one stick remained in place.

And the youngest son of Ham, seeing the destruction, wept for his brothers for three days and three nights. And he built a city in the mountains of the sons of Canine.

With walls of stone he built it;

With dressed stone he established it.

And the sons of Canine came to him and asked to trade but the son of Ham swore by his beard and by the beard of his father Ham that he would not trade or even allow the sons of Canine to enter his city. And so the sons of Canine cursed the son of Ham, saying,

“Though your settlement be strong in your eyes,

With our voices we will shout,

With the breath of our lungs we will cry out,

And your city will be utterly destroyed!”

At nightfall there was a mighty earthquake and a great fire and a violent wind and a storm of storms. But the city of the son of Ham remained.

And so the sons of Canine planned together, saying, “we will not let this son of Ham dwell on our mountain” and they built ladders and scaled the walls of the city and crept into the kitchens. But the youngest son of Ham was preparing stew, and the sons of Canine fell in to the stew pot and were destroyed. And the stew was ruined.

But the city of the son of Ham was saved, and there was rejoicing throughout the land.

Pig

(c) Lucy Marfleet 2015