In the Footsteps of Elizabeth Tudor

Because Elizabeth spent most of her time in the London area, and London has grown into a monster-sized city, much has been swallowed up or changed beyond recognition from her day.

Nonetheless, some of her world lingers on.  The river Thames itself, though embanked, tamed,  and spanned by many bridges rather than only one, remains a constant.  It is still possible to go from Greenwich, through the city of London, past Richmond Palace, and on to Hampton Court, travelling the way Elizabeth did—by boat.  There is no more delightful way to spend a summer day, and it’s a popular excursion.  As in Elizabeth’s time, there are still swans on the Thames.

Here are some highlights of my time in England while researching Elizabeth’s life:

Before she became queen, Princess Elizabeth spent much of her childhood and early adulthood in country houses.  The most famous of these is Hatfield House, about 15 miles outside London.

It was there that Elizabeth learned, in November of 1558, that she had become queen.  Tradition has it that she was seated beneath an oak in the grounds when she received the news.  Today there are still oaks at Hatfield, and I was lucky enough to be there on almost the anniversary of her accession.  The park had a misty and romantic feel to it.

Later she held her very first council meeting in the Great Hall at Hatfield House  where she appointed William Cecil as a councilor. Today the Great Hall is used for banquets and other events.  I attended one; some of the other attendees were dressed in full Elizabethan costume; all I managed was a velvet jacket and cape.

Today, the Cecil family still owns the mansion nearby; see it beyond the maze.

Elizabeth tended to keep the same attendants; loyalty and steadfastness was one of her leading traits.  Her nurse, Blanche

Parry, served her almost all her life, dying in 1590 at the age of 80.  Elizabeth gave her a state funeral and had her buried at St. Margaret’s church (near Westminster Abbey).  She had a lifesized effigy set up over the door that lets us come as close as we ever will to seeing a dear friend of Elizabeth’s.

When Sir Francis Drake was exploring the world, much of what is now everyday to us was exotic to the Elizabethans.  Upon his return from a voyage, he presented Elizabeth with a coconut, which she converted into a memento; the elaborate device can be seen in the Greenwich Maritime Museum.

Westminster Hall, which is part of the old Palace of Westminster and now included in the Houses of Parliament complex, had a long, dramatic history.  As an all-purpose celebration and condemnation chamber, it served as the setting for both coronation banquets and state trials.  Anne Boleyn and Thomas More were condemned here, and during Elizabeth’s reign, the Earl of Essex was tried here.  It is famous for its medieval hammerbeam roof, one of the finest in the land.

Many an event was held in Hampton Court, and it stands today as a favorite site for Tudor fans.  Plays (including ones by Shakespeare) were presented in the Great Hall.

Hampton Court was and is very dramatic approached by water, and today that is still the best way to travel there.

Hampton Court also has a magnificent rose garden. Here you can glimpse the Great Hall rising behind it.

Elizabeth put great stock in her astrologer, Dr. John Dee.  He had recommended the best date for her coronation (January 15, 1559) and certainly her successful reign seemed to bear that out.  So when he told her in December of 1602 that she must leave London and go to Richmond, because death was waiting in London, she obeyed.  But it was in Richmond that she died, 3 months later.  Today there is not much left of Richmond Palace, but the old gateway, through which Elizabeth entered but did not leave alive, still stands.

Flights of Fancy – Costumes Galore

I wouldn’t be a writer if I didn’t want to escape into other personas.  By writing historical novels I’m admitting I feel at home in other eras and yearn to go there.  So it’s natural that I’d enjoy wearing clothes from the long ago and faraway.  It’s just acting out in real life what I do on the page.

Naturally ancient history is a prime source for costume fun, and I’ve dressed as Cleopatra and Helen of Troy at book launch parties, a gladiator at the Gruppo Storico Romano gladiator training school in Rome, and Greek racer at the Nemean Games in Greece.

A medieval gown was just the thing for a castle in France where the Abroad Writers Conference was held, and for the fashion parade at the Historical Novel Society Conference.

Moving into more modern times, I’ve collected reproductions of the costumes from the film “Titanic” and have worn them to formal events.

In Japan, there are special costume establishments that will attire you in authentic geisha wear.  I was in Kyoto during cherry blossom time when scores of Japanese are out in borrowed finery, and joining them was a lot of fun.

Behind the Novels

How do I write my books? At the very start, I am ‘called’ by the possible subject. It’s hard to explain but it’s a little like the first stages of falling in love. You know how you pay just a little more attention to the person, you are just a little bit more aware of his or her presence, you feel a little different when he or she is in a room? That’s what it’s like when my historical characters begin to stir. I become aware of them; suddenly every article or TV ad or interview seems to touch on them in some way. When that happens, do I feel excited, even a bit possessive? That’s the real test.

From the first tickling of interest until I commit myself to the subject, there’s a long fallow time.  While waiting, I ask other people how that topic strikes them—if everyone shrugs then I know it appeals only to me, but if people’s eyes light up, then I know I am being invited to travel down that road.

Now all this time I have been reading and thinking about the possible new subject, indulging in a sort of clandestine time-travel affair of the mind with him or her. When we are finally ready to announce our engagement, I present the new project to the world and go about openly with him/her.

I try to divide the time I am allotted to write the book into equal parts of research and writing. The temptation is to keep on and on researching—there is always one more book to read—and so run out of time for the creative part, which after all is the most important aspect. If a book fails in its creative mission, then it doesn’t matter how much research anyone has done, no one will relate to it.

Because I like both phases of the project, both the research and the writing, I tend to want to keep doing whatever it is I am doing and not switch. So I have to keep a strict timetable and be schoolmarmish with myself.

My research methods are old-fashioned and low-tech. I enjoy hunting on the internet for facts and doing searches to see what comes up in relation to my character, but I still rely primarily on printed material for my sources. I try to own all the books I will need, so I can always have them at hand at home, and also to make notes in them. I copy pertinent references onto 4″x 6″ cards and keep them in a file box. I also have chronological spiral notebooks with one page for each month of a subject’s life, as well as space to enter events taking place in the larger world. I have no research assistant; I do it all myself.

After mastering as much of the material as I possibly can, I then go to the places where the subjects have lived. I try to walk in their footsteps as much as I possibly can. Sometimes their haunts have been preserved as historic heritage sites but other times the sites have vanished or been turned into something else entirely. I try to go to the places in different seasons so I can better understand what it was like to live there. Scotland is very different in February than in June! Once I am there I buy all the onsite booklets, which often contain facts not available elsewhere, and I take lots of slides. Later I will use these slides to reconstruct a site, because no matter how observant I try to be, it’s impossible to take in and retain all the details. I don’t use videos because the moving image is less helpful in checking for details than a still photograph. But I will buy onsite videos if they are available, because they can help. I also take a notebook so I can record what the site ‘feels’ like.

It’s possible to go to the sites first and do the reading afterward, but I believe you see more if you have trained yourself as to what to look for.

Now on to the writing itself! I do not work with outlines as such because my subjects already have a known storyline to their lives. (We all know Mary Queen of Scots gets executed.) Instead I work in scenes: ‘we need a scene where Mary Magdalene first realizes the idol harbors a demon’: ‘we need a scene that shows Cleopatra’s iron will, even as a child.’ Then I make flow charts for the scenes. Sometimes one scene morphs into two. I am usually sketching 5-10 scenes ahead, but of course these follow the broad outline of the character’s life. I always write in sequence, because that way references and plot ideas can grow as I go along.

I try to write the first draft very quickly, to keep moving forward and sketch out the story and action, rather than revising each section before moving on. I find that by the time I reach the end the revisions I will make are quite different from the ones I would have made in the beginning. Too much revision makes the project seem stale to me.

I always try to write one entire scene at a time. You may have noticed that most of my scenes tend to be about 5 pages long—that’s because that’s my natural day’s output! I don’t agree with Hemingway’s rule that you should break off in the middle of a scene because it makes it easier to start the next day. I find if I do that I can never recapture the mood of the original scene. But each writer has his or her own method of working.

One personal tag: I try to have a tortoise in each book.

Writer Friends

Everything about being a writer is contradictory.  We work alone—yet we get validation from our fellow writers and from our readers.  We live and breathe and have our being in words,  yet often are not good conversationalists, as anyone who has witnessed a radio or TV interview with a tongue-tied writer can attest.  We are supposed to be modest (in public) yet are known for checking our Amazon rankings several times a day, and for writing anonymous good reviews for ourselves.

Writers are also supposed to be fierce rivals, pulling out the stops to sell a few more copies than the next guy.  But there are many famous literary friendships.  And on and on.

The writers I’ve met and become friends with have made my life richer, and I haven’t seen any claws out yet.  I’m blessed to have them in my corner.  Thanks, everyone, for your support, friendship, and good ideas!

At the Historical Novel Society Conference in June 2009, I had the opportunity to meet a number of writers and to renew my friendship with others. At the Henry VIII Talks in Hampton Court, May 2009, commemorating the 500th anniversary of his accession, a panel of historians and novelists discussed “Who was Henry VIII?”  (You can listen to the Podcast in the link in “About Margaret”).

Other writer friends in my home area include Jacquelyn Mitchard and Jane Hamilton; unfortunately I don’t have photos of them.  Next time we’re together I’ll remember to bring the camera.

Meet the Tortoise Behind the Book!

Come into our garden and meet Troilus, the tortoise featured in my illustrated children’s book, LUCILLE LOST.

The story is a true story. Our pet tortoise lives in this outdoor garden-pen during the summer months, and sometimes other turtles come to visit. Since there are no turtle boarding facilities or turtle kennels, owners often babysit for one another’s pets.

This garden was built especially for turtles. Its walls are high enough that they can’t get out (that’s what we thought), and the wood is treated with non toxic preservatives. A lot of plants, like azaleas, tomatoes, and daffodils are poisonous to turtles, so we were careful what we planted.

Tortoises like to bask in the sun, but too much sun can overheat them, so we built this house they can retire into for shade. Sometimes they like to sleep out under the plants once they grow tall enough.

When we entertained two guest tortoises, Tanky and Lucille, Lucille managed to get out of the pen. A neighbor relocated her to a nearby wooded area, thinking that was her natural home. Wrong! She came from a much warmer climate than Wisconsin. So the race was on to rescue her before the first frost.

It all turned out safely, and after ten days missing, a hiker recognized her—very lucky, since her camouflage made her almost invisible in the woods. She was none the worse for her adventure, except for being very hungry.

Lucille’s owner and I wondered what she had done during those ten days in the woods, and how it would have seemed from her point of view. Of course we’ll never know for sure, but all the things we describe in the book are really found in our woods—the snapping turtle, the skunk, the deer, the owl, the Native American effigy mounds.

Troilus stayed behind in the pen. We have had Troilus as a pet for 28 years now, and we think he’s about 55 years old. He’s a Hermann’s tortoise, and his native area is the Mediterranean. So he has to come indoors during the Wisconsin winter. Probably the happiest day of the year for him is the first day he can go out into the garden in the spring! He almost dances—slowly!

Ancient Racing

The most ‘hands-on’ research I did to explore Helen’s world was participating in the Nemean Games, and you can read about it in the ANEW magazine article. In July 2004, just two weeks before the Olympic Games in Athens, at the second full moon after the solstice, as in ancient times, I ran in a footrace sponsored by the Society for the Revival of the Nemean Games. In this international event, we raced barefoot and in tunics in the original ancient stadium in Nemea, not far from Helen’s home. In Helen’s day, although women did not race with men, in Olympia there was a traditional race for sixteen women in honor of Hera. Since Helen was reputedly athletic, she may have run in such a race. In any case, going to Nemea gave me a chance to walk—or rather, run—in Helen’s historic footsteps.

Everyone connects ancient Greece with athletics, depicted in the red-on-black of vases, or in gleaming white marble.   We instantly think of the runners, wrestlers, and jumpers in the stadiums, and of winner’s wreaths. In Athens the recent Olympic winners were crowned with the historic Athenian olive wreath, keeping the tradition alive.

Although the Greeks invented the athletic contest, there are big differences between their competitions and ours.  First of all, their games honored specific gods, and were held at religious sanctuaries.  There were four main ‘crown’ games—games in which the winner received a leafy crown, and the type of leaves were specific to the god being honored.  In Olympia, sacred to Zeus, the winner received an olive crown, at Nemea, also sacred to Zeus, a wild celery crown, at Delphi, Apollo’s site, a laurel crown, and at Isthmia, sacred to Poseidon, one of pine.  The big goal was to be a winner at all four games, and collect four crowns.  People had the crowns depicted on their tombstones, it often being the highest honor of their lives.  Winners of the contests were lauded in their hometowns and given a statue and free meals for the rest of their lives.  In addition, time was measured by the contests.  A year would be identified as “the third year of the Olympiad in which so-and-so was the winner.”   No shoe endorsements (as they competed barefoot), no TV deals, but a nice sort of immortality.

The premier event at these games was the one that is still the big one today: the stadion sprint.  (Even now the press loves bestowing the label, “The fastest man in the world.”)  But the biggest difference between their champion sprinters and ours is that there was no comparison between the different performances.  The length of the stadiums was not standardized, so the races were over different distances, and most important, they could not be timed.  There was no way of establishing and comparing records.  You could race against only the people in that particular race, not against any others.  So it was impossible for anyone to know, for sure, that he was ‘the fastest man in Greece.’ This gave an immediacy and importance to each contest, because each was free-standing.

Since the ancient Greeks saw all of life as a competition, there was no honor for the second and third place winners—no silver and bronze medals.  You either won, or you didn’t.  No molly-coddling to egos or handing out feel-good awards (“Everyone’s a winner” would make them scratch their heads.)

Although the modern Olympics purports to resurrect the ancient ideal of pure competition, in today’s world, with its enormous population, it has had the opposite effect:  With the huge pool of potential athletes to draw from, the ones selected for the final competition are not mortals at all, but train and live in a manner completely impossible for most, shall we say—normal?—people.  Athletics has become more and more a rarefied world for supermen and women, and beyond the reach of ordinary people—this at a time when health experts decry our increasing lack of fitness.

In our society, children play on the playground, but then get herded into organized team sports quite early—team sports that they will not be able to continue as adults, leaving them without any athletic endeavors past the age of eighteen.

In 1996, a group of Greeks living in the vicinity of the ancient Nemean sanctuary, and the classics department of the University of California at Berkeley, which was excavating the site, hit upon the idea of reviving the ancient Nemean Games.  They had the original stadium, and they had uncovered the remains of an ancient locker room, as well as the athletes’ tunnel leading to the stadium.  To truly travel back in time and experience what it was to be an ancient Greek athlete, they organized races in which the contestants would take the athletes’ oath, line up on the ancient starting line with the starting-gate device the Greeks had used to ensure no false starts, run barefoot in tunics, win the wild celery crown and the victory palm.  This contest would be open to everyone, men and women, not special athletes, and of all ages. They called themselves the Society for the Revival of the Ancient Nemean Games.

The 1996 games were such a success that they were repeated in 2000, 2004 and 2008. In 2004, the same year as the Athens Olympics, they had more than 900 contestants from over 30 countries.I had the privilege and excitement of participating in the 2004 Nemean Games.

In the Footsteps of Helen of Troy

In ancient Greece, women did not participate in the contests.  But in Olympia, they had their own event, the Maidens’ Race in honor of Hera, in which sixteen girls ran.   In my novel, I had Helen run in a similar race before her marriage.  I described the feelings and the experience of it, but wished I could do it myself to see if I had got it right.

Imagine my delight to learn that I could! The Nemean Games beckoned—and I went. You can read about it in the ANEW magazine article.

As a child I had been a fast runner on the playground, but honestly, what adult runs flat-out, except to catch a bus?  Like so many women at the time I grew up, when we reached adolescence sports were out of our lives.  (Note to women now:  thank Title Nine for changing all that!)  So I had a residual memory of myself as a fast runner, but had nothing at all to base it on.

July 31, 2004, was hot—very hot, probably in the mid-to-high 90’s.  I was lucky that my race was held before it got too beastly.  The 87-meter stadium had twelve lanes and they took twelve runners at a time, starting with the oldest and working down to the youngest.  For the women, the oldest was 79; for the men, the legendary LeGrand Nielsen, at 97.  (He had also competed in the 1996 and 2000 Nemean Games and planned to return in 2008 when he was 101.)  The youngest boy was 4 and the youngest girl was 6.  Some noted contestants were Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy and the famed long-distance runner Kipchobe Keino of Kenya.

An official

Two officials discussing the race

Judge, slaves, rule-enforcers with rods

In the ancient locker room—the apodyterion—we exchanged our modern clothes for the white tunic, the chiton.  We could help ourselves to olive oil to rub on our bodies like the ancient athletes did.  We were then taken out into the tunnel, and administered the oath by a black-robed judge.  “Do you swear to abide by the rules of the Nemean Games and to do nothing that would bring shame to you, your family, or the spirit of the ancient Games?” he asked, and we were to respond, “Orkizome”—“I swear.”  The judge then said, “Now go forward into the stadium, and be worthy of victory.”

Dr. Miller, organizer of the Games, in the ancient locker room

The tunnel is 120 feet long and in it the transformation takes place—you enter as a modern and emerge into another time.  You step out into the stadium as the blue-robed keryx calls your name.  You then go to the stone starting line, where your lane will be decided by lots cast in a bronze helmet.

Margaret emerging from tunnel into stadium

The elaborate starting gate apparatus, the hysplex,  is intimidating; you wonder how you will keep from tripping on the ropes and falling flat on your face.

Margaret at starting stone
Girls at start of race
Girls in mid-race

We had been given instructions for toughening our feet to run on the hard-packed clay of the stadium.  But honestly, I did not feel a thing as I ran it, although I had not done anything special to prepare my feet.

Margaret in mid-race

The white-robed starter, the aphetes,  gives three commands:  “Poda para poda”—foot by foot, our “ready!”; “ettime”—ready, our “set”; and “apite”—“go!”  as he releases the starting mechanism. After it fell and I jumped over the fallen ropes, I was out in front but was sure someone would catch up to me any instant.  But I knew enough not to turn my head and slow down, so I kept going, and was astounded and unbelieving as I crossed the finish line first.

Moment of victory

Being crowned the winner was just about the most exciting thing I can recall, and impossible to imagine in the abstract.  The philosophy of the Games, that modern people have to do them in order to understand them, was right.  And most amazing of all, when I re-read my depiction of Helen’s race, I had described it almost perfectly, as if I had somehow known how it would feel.

I took home my celery crown and victory palm, now framed.  (Art imitates life; I have an old athlete in Helen of Troy talking about preserving his crowns.)

Entering the World of Helen of Troy

Helen lived—if she lived at all—around 1200 BC, in an era we call the Mycenaean age of Greece.  Helen actually came from Sparta, not Troy, but she became forever “Helen of Troy” when she eloped with the Trojan prince Paris, launching a thousand ships, (and today, a thousand hair-care products named after her).

I’d like to share some photographs I took while following Helen’s life in both Greece and Troy.

When Helen– the offspring of Leda, Queen of Sparta, and her tryst with Zeus in the form of a swan—was only a child, a Sibyl at Delphi foretold that she would cause a great war, and because of her many Greeks would die.  The crone’s rock is still there, near the temple of Apollo where the oracle would later sit.

Rock where the Sibyl gave her terrifying prediction about Helen causing a war.

What did Helen look like?  Today’s movies and paintings make her a blonde, but ancient Greek paintings show her as a brunette.  Homer merely tells us she was “white-armed, long robed, and richly tressed,” leaving the rest up to our imagination.

Ancient artist’s rendering of Helen, with Eros urging her on.

Helen had twin brothers, Castor and Polydeuces, and a sister, Clytemnestra.  Clytemnestra later grew up to be the classic avenging, murderous wife, stabbing her husband Agamemnon in his bathtub when he returned from the Trojan War.

In ancient times, different ruling houses had their own patron gods and goddesses.  In the novel, Demeter and her daughter Persephone are the protectors of Helen’s household.  In one episode, Helen is shown attending the mystery rites of the goddesses. These rites began in Mycenaean times and lasted in some form until recently.

The beautiful goddess Persephone, who spent only half the year on the earth, and the other half in Hades.
Until recently, women danced with such torches in the fields of Eleusis to honor the goddess; this carving dates back to ancient times. Mystery rites were held marking her daughter Persephone’s departure and return.

Snakes were also considered sacred, and many households kept a sacred snake. It was thought that if a snake at a sanctuary licked your ear you would receive the gift of prophecy.

Terracotta sacred snakes from Mycenaean Museum

When Helen lived in Sparta, it was not ‘Spartan’ as we know the term.  The military Sparta did not arise until some six hundred years after her time.  In Helen’s day, it was a place of sophisticated music, poetry, and dining.  The valley wherein it lay was very fertile, watered by the Eurotas River, and it was surrounded with the rugged Taygetus range of mountains; it was a beautiful, lush place with dramatic scenary.

The place where Helen’s palace stood, high above the city of Sparta.

The crown of Sparta passed through the woman, and so in choosing a husband Helen was also choosing the future king of Sparta.  After the customary suitors’ contest, where more than 40 men competed for her hand, she chose Menelaus of the house of Atreus in Mycenae, the younger brother of Clytemnestra’s husband Agamemnon.

Helen and her husband Menelaus, 6th century BC carving in the Sparta Museum

When Menelaus died, long after the Trojan War which he survived, he was buried in a  stone mausoleum high above the river Eurotas. One legend says that Helen was also buried there beside him, and that a visit to her tomb had the power to bestow beauty on supplicants. Certainly the site today is powerful and evocative.

Sign marking the entrance to the mausoleum site.
The lovely setting of the mausoleum.
The snowy peaks of Taygetus range in the background.
The Eurotas River far below; the funeral cars had to pass through it.

Helen and Menelaus lived peacefully for ten years, and had a daughter, Hermione.  But when Paris, a Trojan prince, came to Sparta on a diplomatic mission, he and Helen became inflamed with love and ran away together.  Paris was very handsome and allied with Aphrodite, the powerful goddess of love.

Statue of Paris, in the Sparta Museum.

Sparta is some thirty miles from the sea; the first night Paris and Helen only got as far as a small island just off the coast, called Cranae.  The photo, taken there, shows the spectacular sunsets they could have seen.

Glorious sunset over Cranae.

The Mycenaean world that Helen left behind has also left us many relics.

The citadel where Agamemnon ruled. A sprawling palace and fortress, it commanded the area.

Lions at gateway of Mycenae; first monumental sculpture of Greece.

This heavy type of bronze armor became outmoded in the Trojan war.

Mycenaean bridge of uneven boulders.

Palace bathtub of the sort Agamemnon was murdered in.

Homer calls Mycenae ‘rich in gold’ and these cups prove he was right.

Pure gold adornments for hair, clothes, and body.

The first thing that would have struck Helen as she approached Troy were its famous formidable walls.  Today they are only about a third as high as they stood in ancient times.  Troy was lost for many centuries and only rediscovered at the end of the 1800s.

Standing before the actual surviving walls is a stirring moment. Achilles, Hector, Odysseus and Paris fought here. Helen, Priam, and Hecuba looked down from the tops of these walls.

Today the east entrance is the best preserved; the famous Great Tower of Ilium, and the Scaean Gate, are gone.

So complete was the destruction of Troy that even the ruins are scanty. Tourists complained of there being little to see, so the Turkish Ministry of Tourism built this replica of the Trojan Horse, a popular amusement for visitors.

In the desolation of the old citadel of Troy, the wind still blows through the struggling trees and the plain of Troy, where the warriors clashed, spreads out below. In the novel Helen returns to it and encounters the vanished city, climbing to this spot where her palace had stood.

Margaret as Amateur Movie Critic

Movies, even the bad ones, have the advantage of showing moving people in costumes, which is very helpful in visualizing the past.  Here’s my personal list of the good, the bad, and the ugly in the periods I write about.  My (biased) opinions only!

Best ones:

  • “Ben Hur” (1959)—Even without the famous chariot race, this is simply a great, riveting, entertaining movie.
  • “Spartacus” (1960)—Intelligent version of the legendary rebel character.
  • “I, Claudius” (BBC, 1976)—The most entertaining set of silky Imperial monsters: Livia, Caligula, Messalina—delicious!
  • “300” (2007)—Oddly art-house and lovely to look at, makes violence as elegant as in Homer.
  • “A Man for All Seasons” (1966)— A perfect movie…perfect casting, superlative acting, great script.  The golden-haired, lethal Henry VIII as played by Robert Shaw captures the king exactly.  Paul Scofield has ‘electrifying sophistication’ as Thomas More.
  • “Shakespeare in Love” (1998)—captures the feel of Elizabethan exuberance.
  • “Six Wives of Henry VIII” (BBC, 1970)—The entire nine hours were needed to tell the full story of Henry VIII, from golden boy to limping obese monster.
  • “Elizabeth R” (BBC, 1971)—Ditto for Elizabeth, as played with power by Glenda Jackson, only she goes from girl to white-painted icon.

OK ones:

  • “Spartacus: Blood and Sand” (Starz—2009)—Combined the visuals of “300” with non-stop action and memorable characters. Very violent but mesmerizing.
  • “The Tudors” (Showtime—2007-2010)— an attempt to harness the “Rome” formula of violence, sex, and intrigue.  Englishmen cannot compete with the Romans in those departments, so we are left with Henry VIII as an empty-headed oversexed lout.  Just like the fat stereotype, only thinner.  Update:  it got better as it went along, and by the last season was pretty darn good.
  • “Gladiator” (2000)—High production values but unsatisfying gladiatorial scenes, with so much editing and CGI you had no sense of what was happening in the arena—which, after all, was supposed to be the focus of the movie.
  • “Rome” (HBO—2005/2007)—Too fragmented to be truly engaging, too self-consciously titillating, but visually appealing.
  • “Troy” (2004)—Despite a large cast, no one you can root for.  A lackluster retelling.  Brad Pitt as Achilles looks prettier than Helen.
  • “Helen of Troy” (USA Network, 2003)—This Helen doesn’t have the face to launch very many ships, but does incorporate many strands of the myth.
  • “Helen of Troy” (1956)—Helen as sympathetic heroine, but with a Paris blonder and prettier.
  • “Quo Vadis” (1951)—The incomparable Peter Ustinov as Nero redeems the rest of this predictably pious tale.
  • “Cleopatra” (1963)—Liz and Burton are as close as we’ll ever get to seeing what Cleopatra and Antony might have looked and acted like, off screen and on:  the excess!  The ruin!  The passion!  The charm!
  • “Cleopatra” (1934)—Claudette Colbert’s Cleopatra as witty salonniere.
  • “Alexander the Great” (1956)—Burton’s voice can’t cover up the pitiful state of his bod—too much time in the pubs instead of the outdoors make him an odd, unconvincing Alexander. The blond wig doesn’t help, either.
  • “The Virgin Queen” (PBS, 2005)—Starring Anne-Marie Duff, has many good episodes but ultimately does not have a point of view.
  • “Elizabeth I” (HBO, 2006)—The great Helen Mirren stumbles a bit in portraying Elizabeth as an unstable menopausal woman.  Jeremy Irons miscast as Robert Dudley, her supposed soul-mate.
  • “Anne of the Thousand Days” (1969)—Burton back again with the Voice, but once again, too small physically to carry the character.  Genevieve Bujold a fine Anne Boleyn—delicate, exotic, bewitching.
  • “Mary Queen of Scots”  (1971)—pairs willowy Vanessa Redgrave as the Scots Queen and no-nonsense Glenda Jackson as her adversary Elizabeth I; good supporting cast of Timothy Dalton and Ian Holm.
  • “Agora” (2010)—Credit for making a film about Hypatia of Alexandria (4th century AD) and the transition from the ancient pagan world to the Christian dark ages, but as a drama of character it falls short, although the setting is very good.

Bad ones:

  • “Alexander” (2004)—Aside from the unusual elephant battle scene, this embarrassment is best ignored.  Angelina Jolie is camp, Antony Hopkins ludicrous, and Colin Farrell too slight for the central role.
  • “Elizabeth”  (1998)—the history is totally inaccurate.  Since Elizabeth lived an exciting life, there was no reason to make all this up—the truth was better.
  • “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” (2007)—This was even worse than the first.  It had Elizabeth sighing to Raleigh, “Do you think you could ever have loved me?”  Bombed at the box office, sparing us the last of the planned trilogy.
  • “Six Wives of Henry VIII” (PBS—2003)—attempts to do in only four hours what the 1971 version did in nine.  Foredoomed to failure, in addition to portraying Henry VIII as a one-dimensional thug.

Mississippi Pilgrimage

My father’s family came to Webster and Chickasaw Counties, Mississippi in 1838— the area Bobbie Gentry sang about in “Ode to Billie Joe”—and most of them are still there. Although I do not get back there often, when I do it is always a special journey.

It is not far from Oxford where Faulkner lived, wrote, and died, after creating a fictional world that mirrored the Mississippi surrounding him, both past and present. In visiting his home, Rowan Oak, now run by University of Mississippi and open to the public, I got a glimpse of his life there. It was interesting to compare it to the life of a writer now, and it made me realize the toll the fragmented lifestyle of today can take on us writers.

In the first place, Rowan Oak is very quiet. It is said Faulkner named his home—set in acres of woods—after the rowan tree’s quality of peace and security. It was built around 1840 and seems timeless, as there have been few updates.

Margaret standing in the cedar walkway leading up to Rowan Oak. Cedars were planted after the yellow fever epidemic that swept the South in the late 1800s. They were believed to cleanse the air.

It seems suspended, enveloped in a hushed moment—the entire place is a ‘thin place’ where the present, past, and eternity slide back and forth into each other. Faulkner said, “The past is never gone, it’s not even past”, and looking into his library, with the portrait of his great grandfather “The Old Confederate Colonel” staring down, I could see why he would feel that. He wrote in this room with the Old Colonel looking over his shoulder, creating and transforming his Lafayette County into Yoknapatawpha County, a self-contained fictional land. But it was rooted in all the tales he had grown up with—Indian stories, and gossip, old spinsters, slave narratives, and Civil War relics.

The Southerner is able to take ordinary happenings and turn them into stories, stories with a plot and an ending, even when, in real life, it isn’t there. A missed direction becomes an adventure; an offhanded action becomes an important clue to a man’s character. They are still doing it, and it is what makes being there a bit of a fantasy and larger than life.

After Faulkner built himself a writing room he deserted the library and the Old Colonel and took his typewriter there. On good days he took it outside to write. He used the walls of his office to write plot sequences; one from A Fable is still there.

The Old Colonel

I was struck by the bareness and simplicity of the house, and the calmness of his writing environment. It was uncluttered in a way we never see today. He did not even have framed covers of his books on the wall! No photos of himself and luminaries. No knickknacks. It is simplistic to say there were no TVs, no iPods and no internet then, because we all know that. But the absence of the outside media made a space for the human imagination to fill in. He had only his own thoughts standing between him and utter boredom, which gave him a big incentive to get busy amusing himself by making up stories.

I got started writing, as a child, in just such an environment, telling myself stories. In order for that to happen, there has to be stillness, there has to be blankness, there has to be privacy and an absence of outside noise. That doesn’t happen in my life much anymore. Faulkner’s environment was—dare I say it?—rather Zen.

Faulkner also did not hang out with other writers. His local friends were not literary at all. He seemed to keep his imaginative life separate from his everyday life, as if one helped him take a break from the other. I thought how restorative that would be to one’s art, and how today, the constant pressure to be a Writer 24/7—speaking, writing blogs, visiting book clubs, punditing, mentoring, marketing, book tours, reviewing—kills the creative spirit as dead as Raid kills cockroaches. The creative process withers away under such relentless bright exposure. It becomes just another job, which is the last thing it should be.

Faulkner’s typewriter, resting on a table given him by his mother

Some of my family married into the Falkners (the original spelling) way back, but then everyone down there is kin. In the family graveyard I found an interesting tombstone that I imagine has quite a tale behind it.

The name, Absalom, shows that when Faulkner wrote Absalom, Absalom! he was just using a Biblical name common in the area.

I came away rested, my creative batteries recharged, and determined to keep a bit of Rowan Oak tranquility in my life hereafter.

Adventures in Research

Most of my adventures seem to center around either trying to do something forbidden (either by people or by the weather), or meeting strange characters at the site.

I’ve never sought help in gaining entry to a site by writing ahead or trying to contact some professional guardian. Maybe it just seems too packaged that way, and that’s why I stubbornly avoid doing it. The advantage to this is that you can see the site incognito. The down side, of course, is that you might not be able to see it at all!

Sign for Magdala. Sadly, in keeping with the situation in the Middle East today, it is bullet-ridden.

I spent some time in Israel doing research for MARY CALLED MAGDALENE; Mary Magdalene takes her name from Magdala, a fishing town on the west side of the Sea of Galilee. The ancient site of Magdala was excavated in the 1970s but in the passing years had become overgrown again, and it was never part of the tourist track. It proved as elusive to find as the character of Mary herself. A large, yellow, bullet-pockmarked sign along the highway proclaims that the town is there below, but it is invisible.

No road leads to it, and inquiries at other buildings along the way drew blank looks. Finally I turned off into a citrus grove and was directed along the shoreline, past a tacky water park. It was just sunset and although I could glimpse the site, it was encircled with a chain fence and locked.

Success–access to a forbidden site!

A year later I was back during the daytime, only to find it locked again. Then a rattletrap truck drove down a dirt road leading up to the locked gates; the owners were returning, briefly. They allowed me in, although they could not understand what it was I wanted, as we did not speak one another’s language. It was a very peaceful site, with old trees by the abandoned waterfront, donkeys tethered underneath, and the town—excavated by the Franciscan Institute—open and waiting, its squares and streets empty, except of ghosts. The owners let me stay as long as I liked, drinking in the feel of the place. Had I not been there at the moment the truck came along, I never would have gained entrance to the place where Mary Magdalene grew up, and it would have been difficult to re-imagine her world. The entire rest of the time I was in the area, I never saw the owners again or saw anyone at the site; it remained locked up.

All that’s left of ancient Magdala.

When I came to Alexandria to visit the site of Cleopatra’s palace, I found that area is now occupied by an Egyptian military post. Not only was I not allowed to go into it, the soldiers forbade any photos to be taken of the area. Now I did not travel two thousand years in time and six thousand miles on earth to take no for an answer. So my husband and I used the decoy method of distracting their attention, pretending to take photos of the harbor, and then swung the camera back to catch the peninsula where Cleopatra had walked and reigned.

Ancient carvings, Alexandria

At one time no photography was allowed inside Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh, where so many tumultuous things happened to Mary Queen of Scots. In Mary’s bedroom, the place where her secretary Riccio was stabbed, it was vital to know the exact dimensions and how the supper-alcove related to the rest of the room, since so many details of the murder hinge on the logistics. I was able to hide a spy-type camera in my coat pocket and fall behind the tour group in the key rooms and take the necessary photographs, coughing to cover up the telltale sound of the camera shutter.

In the category of interesting people, when I visited Bolton Castle in northern England, one of the first castles where Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned, the young man overseeing the place turned out to be a descendent of the Queen’s last jailor, Sir Amyas Paulet. The events involving Mary and his ancestor may have been over four hundred years old, but not to him. He was incensed that his ancestor had been besmirched by sympathizers for the Scots queen, been made to seem cruel, when he was absolutely no such thing! I tried to assure him that I would be open-minded about the man, and that after all his ancestor had proved his character once and for all when he refused Queen Elizabeth’s ‘hints’ to murder the Scots Queen, but he was still disgruntled. I promised to send him a copy of the book and not to trash his ancestor. I sent him a copy but never heard from him, so I don’t know if he still felt his ancestor had been insulted.

Gray loch, louring skies.

Due to the (in)famous Scottish weather, it can be difficult to get out to sites if you must cross open water. Mary Queen of Scots had two important island sojourns in her life, both involving escapes and chases. One of those was Inchmahome, a tiny island in a loch that was storm-tossed the day I tried to go there. As a National Heritage site it was supposed to be open, but the Scots boatmen were leery of setting out—until I told them of my project about Mary Queen of Scots. Then they were willing to risk it! She still has that effect on people.