Leaping off the Page

My fiction turned real a few days ago when I was working on a bull-leaping scene for my book of ancient Crete, trying to give the work more dazzle with yet one more edit. The Cretans did leap bulls with long, sharp horns back in 1470 BC, and they painted frescoes to illustrate it, like the one shown here.

Bull Leap Fresco at Knossos Ruins in Crete

I wanted to portray the scene so a reader could live it with me. I was digging through the unabridged dictionary checking on a word for that very scene. Imagine my surprise when a similar bull with very long horns charged onto my property.

Unwelcome visitor arrives                                                                       Photo by Robin Loznak

Now, there’s a little inspiration for dazzle. I had recently contracted with developmental editor Judith Lindbergh to review the first 126 pages. And review she did. She was thorough and incisive. It was a little overwhelming. No, strike “a little.” Edit that out. It was overwhelming.

But I was plowing through, sort of like that visiting bull plowed through fences. New inspiration struck. I became excited, obsessive.

All progress stopped when I looked out my window and saw this fellow coming down my road, wagging his impressive horns.

Bull approaches Trevor

Trevor Cooley, who helps his dad, Ed, run cattle on my place, had a problem on his hands. The bull had already burst into the fields below to challenge Ed’s bulls and steers. Here, right outside my door,  the critter tossed his head at Trevor with an aggressive display. That electric wire gate looked mighty thin as Trevor phoned for help. I grabbed the camera, keeping the front door open and assuring Trevor he could run inside if need be.

The bull kept coming.

Too close for comfort

Trevor flung a little gravel at him and the critter turned away to trot down the grassy slope, tangling himself in electric fencing as he went. But he soon broke through and made his way down into the brushy gully.

By evening someone had located his owner. The man walked right up to him–almost. I was impressed. The owner couldn’t quite catch him and couldn’t drive him into the corral. After many tries he gave it up. The next morning the bull was gone. Last I heard it was on the far side of the mountain at the neighbor’s property.

But the bull did leave me with a touch of reality for the story.

My protagonist leaps a horned bull like that, one that even has a similar dapple-brown coat like the bull shown in the fresco. She has help. Grapplers hold the bull by the horns while two young men kneel in front of him, hands together. She jumps on their hands for the lift she needs to soar up and grab the ridge on the animal’s head between the deadly horns. Then she performs a front flip, her feet going over her head and down on his back–the critical crossing. One more flip and she lands on her feet on the ground behind him, into the arms of her catcher.

Of course, it being a story, the thing can’t go that smoothly. It needs tension. It needs dazzle.

Watching that bull, I was glad my protagonist did the leap, not me.

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Going There: The Backstory

Before I launch into Day One about my recent research trip through Greece and Portugal, the UK and Ireland, it occurs to me that it might help clarify my reasons for this journey and my reasons for writing the ancient historical series if I backtrack to the beginning. My focus on the Greek Isle of Crete started in 1994 when I set out to research a mystery novel on that exotic Mediterranean island. I had been writing books and pursuing publication for about 14 years, without success. I had moved from Roseburg, Oregon, to San Francisco in late 1989, ending a long-term marriage, and I was seeking answers for my life.

During this time I read a New York Times bestselling book by Riane Eisler called The Chalice and the Blade, where she describes nothing less than the overturning of the world’s cultural norms from woman-centered civilizations to a patriarchal world ruled by contentious warriors. I was fascinated. One chapter stood out for me, where she describes Crete as the “essential difference.” Because of its isolation in the Mediterranean Sea, this island remained one of the last holdouts of those woman-centered cultures. Its primary city of Knossos offered stunning revelations about these Bronze Age people when archeologists began uncovering the fabulous ruins some 100 years ago. Eisler describes Crete as the highest technological culture ever found where women were not dominated by men. I wanted to see this place.

Room in the Palace/Temple of Knossos

When I visited Knossos and stepped into the partially reconstructed ruins of its central structure, the place seemed to wrap itself around me like a mother’s loving arms. I no longer wanted to write my mystery novel. I wanted to immerse myself in this world and come to know the mystery of the ancients who once thrived there.

Prince of the Lilies Fresco, Knossos

The British archeologist Sir Arthur Evans who uncovered Knossos in the early 1900s was struck by what he found–grand staircases and pillar-lined corridors, technological wonders like flush toilets and an elaborate drainage system, frescoes revealing a free and sensuous lifestyle with women standing proud at the center. He believed he’d found a matriarchy but as a man of his times he thought they needed a king to run it. He saw this as the Palace of King Minos mentioned by Homer and Hesiod. But later scholars suggest it may have been a temple, an idea I adopted for my books, and I drew from one of Eisler’s thoughts on King Minos, depicting him as a Mycenaean warrior with designs on Crete–and a couple of Cretan women.

Part of Knossian Procession Fresco

While in Crete I met a man who helped me understand the attraction, the delight, the frustration that can happen when cultures clash. The experience found its way into my story which opens on this peaceful isle on the day the warriors come.

The frescoes shown here are reproductions of originals that are housed in the excellent Archaeological Museum in nearby Heraklion, Crete, the island’s primary modern city. The bull-leaping fresco appears in the opening scene of my book now called Beyond the Waning Moon. And readers will experience a bull-leaping event in the second scene when the protagonist faces a fierce bull in the court.

Bull-Leaping Fresco, Knossos

I wrote the book and continued editing and revising for several years as I sought its publication. Riane Eisler kindly critiqued the opening and when I addressed her concerns she called the result powerful, responding “Brava!” The novel eventually became a finalist in the Pacific Northwest Writers Association Literary Contest. The next year I found a way to tie the people of Crete to their counterparts in the distant isle of Ireland, another place that had touched me deeply and where I have personal roots.

My search for life’s answers led me to mythologist Joseph Campbell and especially his four-volume work, The Masks of God. My focus riveted on his discussion of Ireland and how he could see behind the Irish myths to a culture of Mother Right, essentially a matriarchy that would have preceded the later patriarchy. As Eisler points out in Chalice and the Blade, this isn’t the flip side of patriarchy where women rule over men but more of an egalitarian society accepting the full worth of both genders. Neither writer suggests any kind of utopia but at least a much more equal situation than we came to know.

I first visited Ireland in 1993 because of my Irish roots and had set one of those mystery novels there. But I wanted to tap into the ancient times that paralleled my Cretan story and find the lost culture of Mother Right, which Campbell talked about.

Rocky Headlands on Irish Coast

The Cretans of the first book in my ancient saga decide to send out a fleet in search of a place the warriors haven’t come. These early Cretans were known as great mariners, their frescoes and other art showing them sailing around the Mediterranean. I figured if they could sail around the eastern Mediterranean they could surely venture to the west and even out through the gate to the Atlantic, as long as they kept the shores in sight. But for a little excitement they get caught in a horrific storm and one ship crashes on the rugged rocks on Ireland’s south coast. Voila! A sequel–albeit loosely tied.

I completed the sequel in 2004 and went back to Ireland in the spring of that year, focused now on stone circles and this rugged south coast near Rosscarbery in County Cork.

Bohonagh Stone Circle Portal, Ireland

I again entered the PNWA literary contest, and this Irish one was a finalist too, just one year after the Cretan book. I thought I was surely on the road to publication then, but could not find an agent for these stories of strong women facing formidable challenges of their time. I began to get discouraged.

My father died in 2007 and I decided to keep the farm founded by my great-great-grandmother Martha in 1868. I left the ancient stories on the shelf and pursued a story about Martha, discovering I had a strong woman in my family who’d faced challenges of her own time. Finally I found an agent, Rita Rosenkranz, who helped me meet my goal of publication with Martha’s story.

But I hadn’t forgotten the ancients. I had a flash of inspiration about the Cretan story and decided to make substantial changes. When I finished those I realized I definitely needed another sequel that would be closely tied. I wanted to launch into it but I had another story set in the same pioneer period as Martha’s story. My agent and I agreed I should take advantage of the publisher’s interest and bring that pioneer story out first.

By the spring of 2014, with the two pioneer stories in the pipeline, I finally had time to draft the closely tied sequel to the Cretan book. By Christmas I was ready to write one more book to continue the ancient line, but it just wasn’t happening until my muse started whispering to me. I told about that experience on a blog post here so won’t repeat it. This fourth book was drafted by the spring of 2015. I had planned to write a fifth that would bring Crete and Ireland back together but realized I had a 16-year gap in the Irish years. Why not fill the gap with another story?

South Gate to Castro do Zambujal, Portugal

Because of all the questions I had left at the end of the first Irish book, I wanted to portray the events of those 16 years. I would take readers to the homeland of the Iberians who’d been capturing slaves off the coast of Ireland. I would show my bad guy in his personal haunts.

But the Iberians couldn’t all be brutes, could they? I learned about their amazing citadel of Zambujal north of today’s Lisbon. They must have enjoyed a sophisticated culture I needed to know more about.

And I would take readers to the Great Isle of Britain where my protagonist runs into some intriguing outlaws in the Lake District of northern England.

I finished the rough draft of the gap story in 2016. Then in 2017 I drafted the sixth book, which took me back to Iberia.

Part of Almendres Cromlech in Cork Forest, Portugal

I had never been to the Iberian peninsula, where there’s a stone circle (or oval) more ancient than the circles of Ireland. I needed to see that, as well as Zambujal. And I had never been to the Lake District in England.

Also, the new books ventured into places in Greece and Ireland I hadn’t visited before. Thus the need for another trip. Once you’ve crossed the pond, that’s the biggest single expense. I decided I might as well put it all together.

So, that’s how the project started and why the extended trip. Next up, I invite you to come with me on my solo journey in Greece and Portugal and my continued trek with writer friend Lynn Ash through the British Isles. I’ll start the next post with Day One in Heraklion, Crete, and the nearby site of Knossos I have come to love.

Bluebells on Mountain in Lake District, England

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