“And in this town of disco heat, the dancing of a thousand feet…”

When I was in fourth grade, I wrote to Lloyd Alexander’s publisher as part of some long-forgotten school assignment. Weeks later, the mailman dropped off a few brochures clipped to a generic cover letter. The impersonality didn’t faze me; simply receiving something from a publisher—someone who understood all that cryptic stuff on the opening pages of books—was a treat, not because I was enamored with the arcana of the industry, but because holding that packet was like receiving a transmission from the Mushroom Planet: These people, I marveled, really exist?

As a kid, I didn’t know any authors. I didn’t know any for much of my adult life, either—but I know a few now, and I’m happy to praise them, plug them, and let “QP?” readers know they exist.

Thanks to this blog, I’ve chatted with Alexis Fajardo, a cartoonist at the Charles M. Schulz Studio and the author of Kid Beowulf, a series of charming, all-ages graphic novels. The most recent volume, Kid Beowulf and the Song of Roland, is Lex’s humorous take on the Charlemagne legend; it combines his passion for world epics with a cartoonish style reminiscent of Jeff Smith or Albert Uderzo. Chat up Lex at comic cons, especially if you want to bring something home for your kids.

“Jeff,” I hear yon straw man cry, “you don’t seem like the ideal reader for a gay military romance set in ancient Rome.” No, I’m not, but The Soldier of Raetia by my pal Heather Domin is a sharp, engaging read. Knowing her book didn’t easily slot into existing genres, Heather opted out of the publishing industry snake-dance and instead went with Lulu—but hers is the rare self-published novel that’s as solid as anything on the bookstore shelves. Historical Novels Review liked it, too.

Steven Hart and I have yet to meet, but we keep finding people and places in common. He now owns a bookstore near my childhood home, and his 2007 book The Last Three Miles: Politics, Murder, and the Construction of America’s First Superhighway is a perhaps the world’s only page-turner about transportation infrastructure. On the surface, it’s the story of the Pulaski Skyway, but you’ll also learn how America built bridges and tunnels in a far less politically genteel era. (At 224 tightly-written pages, The Last Three Miles is also the perfect length; you don’t have to commit to a 600-page tome.)

While wandering Iceland in 1998, I met William Short, an award-winning acoustic engineer who documented his ten-year study of medieval martial arts in the excellent Viking Weapons and Combat Techniques (which I wrote about here.) An increasingly familiar face to Icelandic scholars and reenactors alike, Bill has written a second book, Icelanders in the Viking Age: The People of the Sagas, a terrific introduction for would-be saga readers who haven’t been sure where to start.

A few years ago, Neville Tencer of British Columbia wrote to me from out of the blue to see what I knew about the Via Francigena, the old Frankish pilgrimage route to Rome. (Alas, I knew little.) Neville and his partner, Julie Burk, laced up their boots and hoofed it through the Alps, documenting their travels in An Italian Odyssey: One Couple’s Culinary and Cultural Pilgrimage. This news video about their journey makes me want to follow in their footsteps, undaunted by the reviewer who praised the book for telling “the grubby truth about pilgrimage.”

I’ve never met Bill Peschel, but I do read his blog, and I suspect he’s too modest to hype the fact that his book Writers Gone Wild: The Feuds, Frolics, and Follies of Literature’s Great Adventurers, Drunkards, Lovers, Iconoclasts, and Misanthropes went on sale this week. The book looks like a fun peek into the libertine side of literary history, and I love that Bill has posted the book’s ideal soundtrack on the New York Times “Paper Cuts” blog. Black 47, Lou Reed, and Peter Gabriel—what’s not to like?

“It’s based on a novel by a man named Lear…”

Mirabile visu: Modern technology comes to “Quid Plura”!

You can now use a spiffy pulldown menu to buy a paperback copy of The Tale of Charlemagne and Ralph the Collier (here or on the original post) with either your credit card or your Paypal account.

It’s so easy, a Lombard could do it.

Just specify your location, hit “Buy Now,” and order a copy of what Charlemagne surely would have called “an engaging translation of the only chivalric romance where I totally get slapped in the face,” had the Frankish king spoken colloquial modern English and not been above providing marginally humiliating book endorsements.

Select a shipping option:
Book + shipping within U.S. $12.50 Book + shipping to Canada or Mexico $14.50 Book + shipping outside North America $16.50

This translation, which mingles folklore, chivalry, and burlesque humor in a riot of alliteration and rhyme, should appeal to fans of medieval literature, readers who get a kick out of formal narrative poetry, and those of you who come here for the gargoyles. By buying a copy of this literary oddity, you’ll be helping keep “Quid Plura?” afloat while also letting me know there’s a readership for future translations of lesser-known medieval tales.

For more information about The Tale of Charlemagne and Ralph the Collier (including a PDF preview), check out the original post from January. To order a Kindle copy, proceed post-haste to Amazon. And thanks, as always, for your eyeballs, which make this whole medievalist undertaking entirely worthwhile.

“So I associated myself with fossilized figures…”

Memes come, memes go, and I rarely inflict personal stuff on readers of this blog. However, this meme is fun: list the ten books that most influenced you. Forget the books you love, or the books you think you need to say you’ve read; instead, list the books that answer the question, “Who are you, and how did you get that way?”

Anne Terry White, The Golden Treasury of Myths and Legends (1960).
They’re all here: Theseus, Narcissus, the Volsungs, Beowulf and Grendel, Charlemagne, Tristan and Iseult, all strikingly illustrated by Alice and Martin Provensen. Finding this book in my elementary school library was like falling into a whole new universe, one I haven’t quite climbed out of yet.

Literature I: The Oregon Curriculum (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968).
When my fifth-grade teacher saw me reading The Golden Treasury of Myths and Legends, he decided I was ready for this more advanced textbook. He marked the Greek myths with a paperclip, but I soon moved on to the Norse myths, literary ballads, fables, folktales, and short stories, not knowing I was reading Aesop, Goethe, Kipling, Poe, William Morris, Ray Bradbury, and Robert Graves. Thirty years later, I’m amazed by the breadth of this book’s gorgeous color illustrations: ancient and medieval art from India, China, and Scandinavia, colonial American folk art, and paintings by Breughel, Rembrandt, Chagall, Grandma Moses, Calder, Warhol, Dürer, and Klee. Could we even publish such a sophisticated textbook today?

All of those hardcover Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks from the early 1980s.
Judge me if you must, but I stand by what I wrote in my appreciation of Gary Gygax: “[f]or those of us who were raised outside of an academic milieu, D&D also offered a valuable experience that later served us well: the game offered a preview of the systems, organization, and culture of a worldwide scholarly community.”

Commodore 64 Programmer’s Reference Guide. (Commodore Business Machines, Inc., 1982).
We humanities types blather on about “critical thinking skills,” but if you really want to create English majors who can ace an upper-level college course on symbolic logic, make them program a computer.

Douglas Hofstadter, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (Basic Books, 1980).
I bought this book in high school on the recommendation of a friend who went on to become an engineer. I didn’t entirely get it, I don’t think I finished it, and I doubt I’ll ever return to it, but the lesson was useful: The world is full of people who are much smarter than you are, and you sound like a fool when you call their work “weird” or “esoteric” just because you don’t understand it.

J.D. Salinger, Nine Stories (1953).
It’s exciting to be 17, and to be charmed by a book, and to think, “I want to write like that.” Only when the author kicks the bucket 20 years later do you realize what his book was trying to tell you: “This isn’t the sort of thing you’re meant to write.”

Ben T. Clark, Russian: Third Edition (Harper and Row, 1983).
It’s 9 o’clock in the morning on your first day of college, no one can yet imagine a world in which the Berlin Wall falls and “Winds of Change” is the #4 song in America, and you’ve never seriously studied another language—but within minutes, you’re learning a new alphabet, holding rudimentary conversations, and absorbing terms and concepts that will help you dabble in languages for years to come. Спасибо, Ben T. Clark.

Henry Treece, The Crusades (1964).
I still have my crummy paperback copy of this lurid pop-history, which introduced me to all sorts of wild medieval nutjobs, including Pope Urban, Peter the Hermit, Peter Bartholomew, and Henry Dandolo. Wanting to understand why angry mobs would tear people apart for the sake of relics, I became a medievalist—and as a result, here you are, reading this blog.

Bruce Mitchell and Fred C. Robinson, A Guide to Old English, Fifth Edition (Blackwell, 1992).
So maybe you don’t grow up to become an Anglo-Saxonist. So what? Spend a semester working through this tome and you ought to agree with C.S. Lewis: “The taproot, Anglo-Saxon, can never be abandoned. The man who does not know it remains all his life a child among real English students.”

A.S. Byatt, Possession (1990).
Few novels matter, so it’s nice when a work of fiction speaks to you, offering assurances that leaving grad school is okay—and that trying your hand at writing might be more fun than making a career out of studying the works of others.

“…and every one of them words rang true, and glowed like burning coal…”

[UPDATE: As of December 2012, information on purchasing The Tale of Charlemagne and Ralph the Collier as either a paperback or an e-book can be found here.]

In 2007, I posted my translation of the 15th-century romance “The Taill of Rauf Coilyear,” a 972-line Middle Scots poem about the kerfuffle that ensues when Charlemagne, separated from his entourage by a snowstorm, seeks refuge in the home of a proud and irascible collier (a sort of medieval Tommy Saxondale). Combining folklore motifs with burlesque humor and elements of chansons and chivalric romances, “Rauf Coilyear” is a lively but rarely-read tale of courtesy, hospitality, and knighthood. To my knowledge, it’s also the only medieval romance in which Charlemagne totally gets slapped in the face.

Because enough people found the earlier version both readable and entertaining, I’m pleased to make The Tale of Charlemagne and Ralph the Collier available as a snazzy 56-page paperback. The translation—which imitates the form of the original in 75 thirteen-line rhyming, alliterative stanzas—is freshly polished and lightly annotated, and the bibliography is current. I’m offering this little book as a literary curiosity, an experiment in self-publishing, and a way to help defray the costs of maintaining this blog.

To preview this book, you can see a low-res PDF of sample pages or view larger images of the front and back cover.

No one else has ever translated “Rauf Coilyear” into rhyming, alliterative, modern English verse, and I doubt anyone else will be nutty enough to try—so whether you’re a longtime reader of this blog, a student of medieval literature, or a collector of truly obscure manifestations of Charlemagniana, I hope you’ll find this translation a satisfying read. Despite what Mamillius claimed, sometimes a sad tale isn’t best for winter after all.

“I study nuclear science, I love my classes…”

It would have been idyllic: basking in the glare of the Adriatic, nudging sleepy turtles in the olive grove, ignoring the pre-recorded pleas of the muezzin that tumble down the mountain…but when a friend invited me to write Becoming Charlemagne at his Montenegrin beach house, I turned him down, just as I had to say “no” to generous offers that might have put me in a cottage in Ireland or poolside in Florida. Traveling with easily-misplaced articles and books felt like a great way to miss a deadline, and I vividly imagined Balkan crime lords challenging me to win back my crate of medieval scholarship in a drinking contest ungoverned by nominal adherence to the rule of law.

My irrational fear of becoming a cautionary tale in The Economist notwithstanding, I’ve kept an eye on the e-book market for a device that does everything I need it to do. A few weeks ago, I was stunned to see a TV commercial for the latest Sony Reader, an obvious attempt to scrape away some market share from the Amazon Kindle. But how big, really, is that market? Amazon hasn’t said how many Kindles are out there. I’ve spotted two Kindles in the wild, and plenty of pundits, media people, and bloggers do go on about them, but the device is hardly ubiquitous. So how un-ubiquitous is the Kindle?

Here are some ratios derived from my latest Becoming Charlemagne royalty statement. I have no idea how typical these numbers are, but here’s where e-book sales stand in the life of one modest, midlist pop-history book that’s been in print for three years:

  • Ratio of Kindle copies sold to print copies (hardcover and paperback) sold: 1 : 302 
  • Ratio of e-books in all formats sold to print copies (hardcover and paperback) sold: 1 : 47
  • Ratio of Kindle copies sold to other e-book formats sold: 1 : 5.45
  • Ratio of Kindle copies sold to Microsoft Reader e-books sold: 1 : 3

Interestingly, Kindle sales are lumped under “MOBIPOCKET” on a HarperCollins royalty statement because the Kindle uses that e-book format (and Amazon owns the company), but 16% of the Mobipocket sales for BC occurred before the release of the Kindle in late 2007—so there’s no telling if all the sales I’m ascribing to Kindle even went to Kindle users.

So there it is: e-books account for only 2% of this one book’s total sales, which includes hardcover, paperback, and various e-book formats—and Kindle sales account for no more than 0.3% of total sales.

Perhaps, compared to sales in other genres, these numbers are weirdly low. For all I know, people who read little medieval-themed pop-history books by unknown authors are atypically hostile to e-books or simply aren’t early adapters in general. Maybe people who buy mysteries, science-fiction novels, or political screeds are far more open to new technology?

Whatever the case, while I’d like to be enthusiastic about e-books, I can’t help remembering what Charlemagne said in 793 when his flunkies promised him a canal between the Danube and the Rhine: “When you say it’s going to happen ‘now,’ well, when exactly do you mean?”

“There’s a glass of punch below your feet and an angel at your head…”

This week, I’m busier than Shane McGowan’s dental team—but here are some spiffy links.

At Writer Beware!, Victoria Strauss compiles recent links about the business of writing.

Much discussion ensues when John Scalzi upbraids the three biggest science fiction magazines for not accepting electronic submissions.

Strange Horizons tells aspiring writers the “stories we’ve seen too often.” So does Clarkesworld: “stories about young kids playing in some field and discovering ANYTHING. (a body, an alien craft, Excalibur, ANYTHING).”

At Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Bruce Sterling and Lewis Shiner offer a “turkey city lexicon” of writing errors and hackneyed plots. Heck, the SFWA’s entire roster of writing-advice articles is superb.

Steven Hart serves up a link-rich post about editing, book promotion, and publishing contracts.

Jake Seliger wants to know: What’s the deal with white covers on nonfiction books?

Jason Fisher explains “the Lewis/Tolkien collaboration that might have been (but never was).”

Steven Till points us to John Crowley on the art of historical fiction.

Per Omnia Saecula bravely continues its “bad medieval movie” series.

“Businessmen, they drink my wine…”

The following is an open letter to the Sci Fi Channel people.

Dear Sci Fi Channel People:

I write to you with the dogged affection of a spurned but hopeful suitor. Your Sci Fi Channel Original Movies have long provided me with superb background noise for otherwise dreary weekends of writing. I admired Sharks in Venice, I thought Dragon Dynasty was a hoot, and SS Doomtrooper more than satisfied my nostalgia for the entirely unrelated video-game franchise I’m sure you didn’t intend it to resemble at all. You even made an awful sequel to the awful Dungeons and Dragons movie! I should be grateful.

Instead, like the Mansquito tending the juice bar at a Dracula family reunion, I sense a distinct lack of opportunity, and the only sound I hear is forlorn and fruitless sucking.

Let facts be submitted to a candid world: Battlestar Galactica has ended, your parent company is unsteady, and your new name sounds like a social disease. I get that your monster-and-disaster B-movies turn a profit, but when even I can no longer distinguish Croc from Supergator or Frankenfish from Snakehead Terror, then your future is bleak.

With fingers bloody from clinging to the bottom of the midlist, I’m writing to offer two magic words that will rescue your faltering network:

Becoming Charlemagne.

We’ll start, as Battlestar Galactica did, with a miniseries—but unlike effects-driven productions that require custom sets and scores of Canadian character actors, Becoming Charlemagne: The Miniseries will be a model of parsimony. Given Sci Fi’s substantial catalog of wholly owned intellectual property, we can easily edit and re-dub scenes from Minotaur, Ogre, Gryphon, Grendel, Wyvern, Dragon Sword, Dragon Storm, and Hammerhead: Shark Frenzy to craft a Charlemagne narrative that is as entertaining as it is astonishingly thrifty.

After the miniseries proves viable, we’ll frugally film the resulting Becoming Charlemagne: The Series on location in the Balkans. My contacts in the Belgrade suburbs can ply our army of extras with homemade moonshine, perhaps in lieu of pay. To ensure a smooth transition, the miniseries should establish the existence of Brutalist architecture in ninth-century Aachen, an anachronism that only inflexible purists will decry.

I understand that television executives don’t leap gaily into edgy, cerebral projects—so if it helps, think of Becoming Charlemagne: The Series as “Battlestar Galactica in the woods.” The parallel with Charlemagne’s legendary Twelve Peers speaks for itself (“there are many copies, and they have a plan”), but if medieval jargon leaves you cold, feel free to substitute more familiar language. A Saxon, for example, might profitably be thought of as a tree Cylon. An angel in a hot red dress is hardly out of the question.

While you ponder my proposal, I’ll continue my vigil outside the bedroom windows of Sci Fi executives, raising my boom box aloft in an attempt to sell you on my other marketable idea: a starkly “reimagined” version of the failed 1992 series Covington Cross. Graphic medieval violence is, I believe, the resolution of all your fruitless searches, and while there are certainly worse shows we could remake, market research proves that the smart money flocks to projects in which the Skye is always the color of Ione.

Yours in sacré Charlemania,


cc: Steven Spielberg; Peter Jackson; Christopher Tolkien; Rosamund McKitterick; Pierre Riché; John Rhys-Davies; Mirek Topolánek, President, European Union; Steve Voigt, President, King Arthur Flour Company; Coolio

“Well and I, could trace your private number, baby…”

No one has ever asked me how I celebrated when my agent sold my book, but if someone did, I’d answer, “by eating an ostrich in the Philippines.” In August 2004, I was visiting friends in Manila, and getting the good news was just part of a strange and memorable trip. I took a ferry to Corrigedor and watched nearly a hundred people get seasick, I shopped at one of the big Muslim pearl markets, and I dined at what was, during its brief existence, the world’s only all-Spam restaurant. The landscape was beautiful, the poverty was palpable and sad, and the people were quirky—and I fondly remember it all once a month, when a Filipino telemarketer leaves me an answering-machine message praising my book and offering to help me promote it.

BookWhirl may have a Wisconsin mailing address, but they’ve told as least one blogger that they’re in Iowa, and the small print on their Web site attributes copyright to Yen Chen Support, an outsourcing firm with a call center in the Filipino province of Cebu. From their island stronghold in Southeast Asia, BookWhirl minions have pestered such authors as Piers Anthony, Lee Goldberg, and April Henry, but all in vain. Their questionable services include a press release campaign; the “Online Directory Listing,” which involves posting advertisements “to various sites that have high traffic rates”; and the “Email Marketing Advertisement,” which should settle any remaining concern about the need to secure honest employment for exiled Nigerian princes.

Oddly—or perhaps not—the BookWhirl site lists not a single endorsement, ringing or otherwise, from any of the 130 mostly self-published authors who’ve used their services, and the professional qualifications of the BookWhirl staff are an enigma coated in ube and wrapped in the deep-fried milkfish of mystery. The company touts its “experienced team of online marketing strategists, ad copywriters, graphic artists, and web designers,” but neither their Web site nor any of their tiresome press releases list the name of anyone with publishing or marketing experience. In fact, the Web site lists no employee names at all.

I haven’t the foggiest idea why BookWhirl thinks they can help me. Their unsolicited calls probably violate federal law, and I don’t support their efforts to profit from the gullible. Still, the next time I get that call from Cebu, I’ll enjoy hearing someone who hasn’t read my book tell me how thrilling he found it. He’s just doing his job, and he can’t possibly know how silly he sounds, but aspiring writers can learn from his folly: empty praise is a service you don’t have to pay for.

“I was filled with creative desire, I set my mommy’s house on fire…”

Every so often, I bump into aspiring writers who say they can’t imagine why anyone would read or write a blog. Me, I don’t understand why anyone would pay to fill their shelves with books about writing when a host of smart journalists, novelists, professors, and other pros have moved much of the conversation online. It’s never been easier to gab about the creative process or to learn about writing as a business, and folks are just giving away the wisdom. Behold…

Literary agent Nathan Bransford descends from the mountaintop with the Ten Commandments for the Happy Writer. (The smartest one is number five: “Don’t quit your day job.”)

Writer C.M. Mayo compiles a list “to all the many people who ask me to read their manuscripts.”

Novelist J.A. Konrath outlines the differences between a confident writer and a delusional writer. (Link via Steven Hart, who has some pithy advice of his own: read, study, understand.)

Margaret Soltan ponders why writing is often “acutely unpleasant.”

Novelist Leslie Pietrzyk spends a day “writing uncomfortably.”

Olen Steinhauer wonders how other writers find the time and notes that the day his new novel came out was not “particularly raucous.”

“The tap-tap-tapping of the typewriter pays…”

Twenty-three years ago this month, I convinced my folks to drive me to the toy store to buy something that toy stores no longer sell. Most people didn’t know what a modem was, but when I whipped up an ASCII animation showing us making the trip as a family and emerging in triumph from the Toys R Us, my parents were amused enough to give me a lift, if understandably skeptical. In 1986, the online world was too tiny to be mythologized. Wild stories about local kids “changing the positions of satellites up in the blue heavens” sometimes made the news, but online bulletin-boards were “here there be dragons” outlands for all but a few, and no one noticed gaming pioneers as they racked up monstrous Compuserve bills playing Hangman at 300 baud.

Lacking any real plan, I used my modem to connect to a suburban archipelago of slow, single-line BBSes, not knowing that the experience would teach me how to write. A few years later, when I was the only English major banging out e-mail on an X-term in the basement of the computer science building, I didn’t know I was an early adapter of a network that would soon link millions of offices and homes while uprooting the business models of several industries, including publishing. I only knew that I sensed opportunity.

I thought about those days when I read Jake Seliger’s post about a New York Times article pointing out the obvious: the online market for used books is a boon for readers. Jake wondered how cheap books will affect the business of publishing, and while I don’t know what the future holds for companies that can’t adapt, I told him I didn’t think a bonanza of secondhand books was necessarily bad for authors:

As someone who recently entered the publishing world as a lower-midlist author, I’ve thought quite a bit about the implications of the online market for used and discount books. When someone buys my book used on Amazon for $4 instead of paying $12 for a new paperback, that’s around 75 cents in royalties I don’t see—but I’d be awfully short-sighted to gripe about that, because the glorious churn of the used-book market may help me in the long run. Today’s budget-conscious undergraduate may be tomorrow’s history teacher; perhaps he’ll assign my book to his class of twenty students five years from now. Or maybe he’ll recommend the book to a friend who then downloads a copy to his Kindle, thereby putting around $2 in my pocket. Or maybe he hates the book so much that he strenuously avoids my next one, thus sparing me a one-star Amazon review that would have dissuaded potential readers.

Who knows? I do know that I’d be a fool to gripe about the Internet, because thanks to the Web–which includes everything from Amazon to bloggers to podcasts to the online BookTV archives—I’ve sold more copies of my book than the 50 or so secondhand copies currently listed on Amazon. Fretful authors and publishers who dread the advent of the hyper-efficient online book market may yet be vindicated, but I’m not convinced that budget-conscious book-buyers are the only ones who stand to benefit from it.

Compared to a fantasy world in which Amazon, the big bookstore chains, and used-book dealers simultaneously thrive (and where all of our orders are, presumably, delivered by a Deschanel sister on a flying unicorn), the current situation looks bleak—but as an author, a voracious book-buyer, and someone who’d be nowhere without the Internet, I prefer the here-and-now to the real world of twenty years ago, when a suburban “bookstore” was a nook in the mall stocked only with bestsellers, a few shelves of genre fiction, some classics, and the latest comic-strip anthologies.

Whether my career thrives or stalls, I’m glad I’m a writer now. I can get obscure articles in minutes rather then weeks, and people on the subway can use a telephone to order and read my books from stores that never close. Best of all, my cable modem is more than 6,500 times faster than the modem I bought in 1986, but it cost the same amount: around 60 bucks (or half the price in 1986 dollars). Confusion may be justified, but hold off on the Anglo-Saxon elegies; not everything is worse than it used to be.