Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Inquisition: Surreal Sci-Fi or Gothic Horror Story?

I've been in Spain about a month and already I've been to two Inquisition museums.  (Not by choice).

Now here's a little history lesson.  (If you don't care, scroll down for the writing part.  But keep in mind that history is one big epic story, so as writers, we can learn from it, and we should definitely appreciate it):

Spain is a very Catholic country, but it wasn't always.  In fact, it was controlled by Arabs from North Africa for almost 800 years, which meant that a large percentage of the population practiced Islam.  It influenced architecture, language, food, and more, and those influences are still around to this day.

At this point, Spain didn't exist.  It was a bunch of small kingdoms up until the 1400s, when one of historys' most famous couples got married:  Ferdinand II and Isabella I.  With their marriage, they united Castile and Aragon, two of the biggest kingdoms, and from there, set out to "reconquer" the kingdoms still controlled by the Arabs.  In 1492, the last Arab city (Granada) fell, and for the first time, Spain was united under one monarchy.

Yet Ferdinand and Isabella, nicknamed the Catholic Monarchs, sought to secure their new country with more than political unity.  They wanted religious unity, as well.  So they set up the Holy Office of the Inquisition to seek out falsos conversos, generally Muslims or Jews who claimed to have converted to Christianity, but still secretly practiced their original religion.

But the Inquisition was used for far more than that.  It was frequently an excuse for something else, like personal vengeance or commercial gain.

So how did the Inquisition work?

Enter Diego, a wealthy merchant.  His competitor, jealous of his success, informs the Holy Office of the Inquisition that he has reason to believe that Pablo is secretly practicing Judaism.  Why?  Because he never buys pork.  In reality, Diego just doesn't like pork.  (This is the case with Natalie Portman's character in the movie Goya's Ghosts).

He doesn't know why he has been summoned by the Holy Office, and when he shows up, the inquisitors don't tell him.  Not for awhile, anyway.  When they do, he tries to explain that it's a simple misunderstanding.  He's a very pious Catholic.  But the inquisitors have already confiscated his property, and they don't want to release him.

And here's where it gets gory.  In order to get Diego to confess that he is secretly Jewish, the inquisitors subject him to torture:  the rack, the wheel, etc.  They believed that a confession gained through torture was hard evidence of someone's guilt, because if they were innocent, God would give them the strength to withstand the pain.

Now let's say Diego caves.  Even though he isn't Jewish, he tells them he is.  OK, so enough with the torture, but now he's stuck in a tiny dungeon cell until it's time for his public auto de fe, a trial that most often resulted in public humiliation, but could also end in punishment as severe as burning at the stake.

Now onto writing.

Since being in Spain, I've visited two Inquisition museums.  To my surprise, they were completely different, though they both told the exact same story.

Gothic Horror

The first one we visited while in Córdoba, a city about an hour from Sevilla.  It was a small museum, situated on a tiny street, with only about five rooms; but by the end of it, we all felt a little nauseous.

Why?  You can probably guess.

This museum focused heavily on torture, and it had on display dozens of different devices.  (Yup, we asked.  Not recreations.  That was an authentic guillotine I tripped on.)  Lining the walls were drawings from the time period that showed the devices at work.  Honestly, these were the most disturbing part.

Notice the "Do Not Touch" sign.  "Do not put your hand in the spiky wardrobe!"
Then there was the atmosphere.  To enter and exit the exhibit, you had to pass through black veils that hung over the doors.  Once inside, the lights were dim, giving the rooms an eerie reddish glow.  They were small rooms, too, perfectly square, with very low ceilings.  There was no background music, no television screens.  Not even a guard to keep you grounded in the present.  Just you, your friends, and the Iron Maiden.

Overall tone of this museum?  The Inquisition was dark.  Scary.  Bloody.  Nothing short of a gothic horror story.
Notice the red light and the chandelier in the background.  Both set the mood:  dark and scary.
(Sidenote:  I tripped on this thing.  Thank goodness it wasn't on something with spikes, though.   Nothing was behind glass, or even roped off, so if you tripped and fell onto the Judas Chair, sucks for you.)

Surreal Sci-Fi

The second museum was in Sevilla.  It's located in what's left of the Castillo de San Jorge, which used to house the Holy Office of the Inquisition in Sevilla.  So this is the real deal.  Where it happened.

Kind of dreamlike, right?
But what happened?

Unlike the museum in Córdoba, this one housed very few artifacts.  Almost none.  Instead, this museum utilized video to emphasize the mental and emotional components of the Inquisition.  And not the kind of video you'd expect, either.  These were surrealist clips, no more than a few minutes long.  What do I mean by surrealist?  Well, one showed a naked man in a fetal position, floating in a black void.  A bunch of different angles, close-ups, etc., until finally he grew smaller, and smaller, and smaller…

Nope, there was no plaque with an explanation.  No words at all.

The other part of the museum focused on spaces.  Here's where the stables were, and here was the kitchen, and here were the cells.  No complete walls remain, so they're just spaces marked by walls that are two feet high.  There is nothing in these spaces, either.  They're a hundred percent empty, and dare I say it?  Yes, walking through them was somewhat surreal.

Notice the lighted boardwalks.  Almost futuristic.
Now for the atmosphere.  Lots of television screens with strange videos.  Lots of glass, including a glass ceiling.  A lighted boardwalk that went over the ruins.  Huge spacious rooms that allowed for an echo.

As I toured the museum, I felt like I was floating through a dream; or better yet, a surrealist painting like Dali's The Persistence of Memory.  Very strange.

Overall tone?  The Inquisition was bizarre.  Kind of like a surreal sci-fi story.

So which is correct?  Which is better?

Is the fake skeleton really necessary?
No, but it's all part of the genre.
Like a horror writer, the museum is
trying to create a certain atmosphere.
Well, they're both correct, that's for sure.  They tell the same story.  Same setting, same characters, same plot.  The big difference is the genre, which sets the tone:  the content, combined with the dim lighting, of the museum in Córdoba pinned the Inquisition as a gothic horror.  But based only on the museum at the Castillo de San Jorge, I'd file it as sci-fi, or maybe magical realism.  Very different genres.  Very different messages.

Is one better than the other?  Well, let's see.

As writers, we have to be aware of our genre and the expectations that go along with it.  What mood are we trying to convey?  When is it a good idea to combine genres?  And if we want to do that, how can we do it well?

The best way to figure that out is to read books within your genre.  Lots of books.  And as you read, pay attention to the tone.  Is this the tone you want for your story?  Does it work well?  Or will something else work better?  Make your story stand out?

All in all, it depends on your focus.  The museum in Córdoba focused on torture, and the physical horrors of the Inquisition; but the museum in Sevilla wanted to explore the mental and emotional side, so it sought to create a hazy dreamlike atmosphere that left its visitors a little confused, a little shocked, but with a better understanding the quiet chaos and perpetual fear that went along with the Spanish Inquisition.

Same story, different messages.  Is one better than the other?  That's for the visitor to decide.

Combining Genres

So what if these two museums were combined?

Surreal Sci-Fi + Gothic Horror = ?

Well, I'm not sure there's a name for the result, but when I first thought about this question, my mind immediately went to the movie Pan's Labyrinth.  If you've never seen Pan's Labyrinth, you should.  It's a fantastic movie set during the Spanish Civil War, and it combines the above elements.  (OK, so fantasy instead of sci-fi, if we're going to be nitpicky.)  The blend of genres works perfectly for this movie.  The dark fantasy elements express the characters' fear, and their attempts at coping with the horror and violence of the period.

In Summary

Know your genre.  Know your tone.  Know your message.

And perhaps most importantly, don't be afraid to experiment.  Maybe write a few pages intending it to be in one genre, then try in another.  Heck, I wrote half a book as a YA paranormal retelling, only to then try writing a few chapters of the same story as a MG fantasy adventure.  Very different tones, very different messages.  (Ultimately, I went with the MG fantasy adventure.)

Whew, this is a long post! 

Your thoughts?  Are you familiar with two versions of the same story with very different tones?  What are they?  Which do you like better, and why?

Sunday, February 17, 2013

"They're such beautiful shirts!"

Let's get one thing straight:  I am not a fashionista.  Sure, I have my own personal style, but it usually involves a pair of jeans.  Nothing fancy.

But ever since coming to Spain, my style has changed.  Not a lot, but enough to be noticeable.  Our Study Abroad program suggested it:  "Dress nicer," they said.  "You'll blend in better.  No sneakers, no sweatpants, no t-shirts."

(Side note:  I don't blend in.  My backpack is a dead giveaway, but I like it too much to sacrifice it for some European swag.  Besides, everyone knows I'm not a local as soon as I open my mouth, so why bother?)

Gown of First Lady Helen Taft.  So early 1900s.
For the most part, I've adhered to the advice.  More skirts, better shoes.  The other day I even wore a pair of patterned harem pants.  (Bold, I know.  But they're so comfortable!)  Anyway, as I've been toying with my own sense of style, I got to thinking about fashion in writing.  Our characters have to be dressed, don't they?  (Well, not always…)

Writing about clothes is fun, at least for me.  However, there is a line.  I firmly believe that descriptions of clothes should be used for a greater purpose, not only to tell the reader what a character is wearing.  Luckily, most writers do this unconsciously:  the stereotypical popular crowd in a YA contemporary is almost always in miniskirts, while the academically inclined protagonist opts for Target jeans.  What does that say about them?

(Side note:  I strongly dislike books that heavily rely on the stereotypical popular crowd as a plot device because I don't find it believable.  Mean Girls works because it's satire.)

Moroccan gowns.  Present day.
A girl who only wears baggy clothes might be self-conscious about her weight.  A boy in Nantucket red pants could easily be a frat brother.

The Hunger Games is a great example of fashion for a purpose.  There isn't much description of Katniss's everyday clothes, or even the clothes she wears while in the arena, but we all remember her clothes that make a statement and give a sense of her character:  the coal costumes that catch fire, the dress with the flames, the Mockingjay wedding gown.

Ok, so not too difficult.  What's a little trickier is avoiding over-description.

I know people who go online shopping for their characters.  Great!  It helps them get a better mental picture of their characters, and it sounds like a lot of fun.  But they run the danger of wanting to describe every single detail, down to the very thread-count.  That's a big no-no, because frankly, the reader doesn't care that much.  If you must talk about fashion, mention it briefly, and move on.

However, there is a time to linger, and that's when your PoV character is doing commentary.  (Remember:  even if you write in third person, you still have a PoV character).  If a character is surprised by an outfit, perhaps.  Or if she's jealous.  Or if the clothes are new, or offensive.  If a proper nineteenth-century Englishwoman travels to a country where harem pants are big, she might be a little taken aback, and therefore she'll linger on them.

But don't linger too much.  Otherwise the reader will think, "We get the point!  Move on."

Colonial style, circa 1780.
Sometimes it is difficult to move on.  I'm guilty.  I love to write about my characters' outfits, especially since most of my work isn't contemporary, which means cool historical clothes like the ones in the photos.  I also tend to set my work all over the world, so I have to be conscious of international and historical fashion.  When I go to museums, I take pictures of the clothing, especially, so I can look at them for later reference.  Also, the Internet is a wonderful wonderful thing.  Movies can also be very helpful.

Your thoughts on fashion in writing?

Monday, February 11, 2013

When to Put Down the Book

Another weekend, another adventure!  Where, you ask?  AFRICA.

It's casual.

The most glorious sunset.  That's Africa.
Yep, I spent three days in Morocco, exploring the beautiful cities of Tetuan, Chefchaouen, and Tangier.  Cool, right?  Way cool.  Every few minutes I said to myself, "Is this real life?  This cannot be real life."

Guess what?  It was real life.

We left Spain on Friday, crossing at the Straits of Gibraltar.  As we sailed for Ceuta, a Spanish city located in Morocco, we watched the most glorious sunset I have ever seen.  With Africa to one side, and Europe to the other, the sun dipped below the Mediterranean horizon, momentarily lighting up the sky with a million colors.

A street in Chefchaouen.  Notice the mountain.
We spent most of Saturday in Chefchaouen, a picturesque town on the side of a mountain.  (Almost all the towns are on the sides of mountains).  There I had my first experience with a Moroccan market:  unlike in the States, it's acceptable--no, expected--that you haggle.  I'm terrible at it, but it was still a ton of fun!  Like when I turned my back on the shopkeeper, strutted away with mock confidence, and sure enough, he called me back:  "Okay, okay, you can have for 70 dirham!"

I thought so.

Anyway, now I'm loaded up with a beaded shirt, a sundress, three giant bags of Moroccan tea, several grams of saffron, some soap, earrings, a scarf, three pairs of harem pants, and a magic lamp.  (The Disney nerd in me could not in good conscience go to Morocco and not get a magic lamp).

I'm on a camel!  In MOROCCO.

After a Moroccan lunch, we headed for Tangier.  The next day we rode some camels, explored Tetuan, and finally, went back to semi-reality, a.k.a. Spain.

So what does any of this have to do with reading and writing?  Lots, actually.  I could talk about cool settings, or gender roles in books, or world-building, or fun dialogue (I mean, just think about the banter between a shopkeeper and a potential customer).

But instead, I'm going to talk about not writing and not reading.  Sometimes, it's actually a good idea :)

The three cities I visited are relatively far from each other:  at least an hour, sometimes two or more, on a narrow road that winds through a rugged countryside.  Lots of bus time to get work done, right?  Good, because I had a ton of reading to do:  reading for class, reading for my internship, research reading for my WIP, reading friends' manuscripts, and so on.

Moroccan countryside.
I turned on my Kindle.  Looked down.  Read a sentence.  A paragraph.  And turned it off.

How could I stare at a page when the beautiful Moroccan countryside was rolling by my window?  I can read anytime, I can write anytime.  But who knows when I'll next see Morocco?  Even if it's from a bus, through a window, the vista is so breathtaking, so awe-inspiring, that I'd be a fool to miss it, even for a gripping page-turner.  Because guess what?  This is real life.

Market in Tetuan.

It's those moments when real life becomes as awe-inspiring as fiction that it's time to put down the book, look out the window, explore and dream and live.  Writers always inhabit the heads of their characters, but every once in awhile, they need to leave those characters behind in order to go on their own adventures.  Otherwise, they'll miss the wonderful story called life.

What if I had been a good student and did my assigned readings while on the ferry?  I would have missed the Most Glorious Sunset.  And if I had read on the bus?  Or if I had been writing?  I'd never have noticed the rippling streams that course through the hills, or the little boy riding a donkey, or a multicolored herd galloping in sync over a field.

Books are great.  I love books.  I love words.  They truly are magical, but it's important to remember that they are just words on a page.  Powerful words, but words nonetheless.  Simple inkblots.  Turn away for a moment, and you'll find that the real story is the one that's all around you.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Writing, Reading, and Religion

St, Peter's Basilica.  That's me in the white sweater.
I spent this past weekend in Rome.  Pretty awesome, right?  All in all, it was a fantastic trip, though I wouldn't dare call it a vacation.  If you've ever read Dan Brown's ANGELS & DEMONS, then you'll know how the protagonist, Robert Langdon, sprints through the whole city in the space of a day.  Yup, that was us:  in two days we visited the Vatican (with tour of the crypts), Coliseum, Roman Forum, Spanish Steps, Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, Bridge of Angels, Castel Sant'angelo, more fountains, more churches, and a few piazzas.

Though like true Spaniards (well, we're Americans living in Spain), we still had time for siestas.  But that's beside the point.

The point of this post is something else entirely:  writing, reading, and religion.

My relationship with religion is about as complicated as my relationship with my hair, and considering I feel like a Pantene model one day, and Bellatrix Lestrange the next, it's pretty darn complicated.

A statue of Artemis, Greek goddess of the hunt. 
I was raised in a mixed religion household.  That's really confusing, and with one half of the family saying this, and the other saying that, I never quite understood either.  At least, not enough to prefer one over the other, and let's face it:  when it comes to religious beliefs, you can't be half-and-half.  It wasn't until my rebellious high school years that I went through an identity crisis and settled on only one.

Growing up, it always bothered me that I didn't understand.  Sure, I attended church and synagogue events with friends, but I had no idea what was going on.  What does this mean?  What does that mean?  Yet I didn't apply myself to really learning until I decided to become an English major:  to be a writer and a reader, you certainly don't have to be religious; however, I'd argue that you need to have a fairly firm understanding of the world's major religions, and you definitely-without-a-doubt-no-exceptions need to have an open mind.  Here's why:

To be a writer, you have to be a reader, and to be a good reader, you have to recognize the importance of the classics, even if you don't particularly enjoy them.  There's a reason they're classics, after all, and if we take the time to think about them, we can learn a lot about our chosen craft.  Now, what are the various literary techniques you study when you read a classic?  Imagery, metaphor, allusions...Lots of those techniques draw on religion, and if you don't catch the references, it's likely you're missing part of the story's message.

Then there are the archetypes we draw from religion and religious works.  For example, many would argue that there would be no sexy antihero without Milton's Paradise Lost, the first work to feature the devil as the protagonist.

The small white temple on the far left is the temple of the vestal virgins, priestesses in ancient Roman religion.
How about demons?  Angels?  Those come from Christianity.  And the gods and goddesses that often show up in fantasy?  They're usually based on the divinities of Ancient Greece and Rome.  Did you know that the dæmons in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series are based on classical mythology?  Then there's Laini Taylor's YA urban fantasy Daughter of Smoke & Bone, which draws heavily on both Christianity and Buddhism.  No, it's not required that you understand either of those religions to appreciate the book, but her use of religion to create a world is definitely interesting.

Long story short:  I love to learn about religions, so I was thrilled to visit the Vatican and other religious sites in Rome.  Thanks to my wonderful travel buddies, super awesome tours, and so many old artifacts, sculptures, and paintings, I learned so much :)

What books do you know of that draw heavily on religion?