Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Traitors and Turncoats: The Vile and Incomprehensible Ruy Blásquez

Supposedly an illustration of an incident from the cycle
of El Cid, which also comes from historical/epic tradition.
As you know if you follow my author blog, I have a guest post today on the wonderful site Unusual Historicals. It's all about a pair of traitors in medieval Castilian epic, and in passing I discuss the strange symbiosis between Castilian epic and medieval Castilian historical sources. 

I wanted to discuss the baddies of The Seven Noble Knights of Lara here. There are spoilers in the following comments.

The story on which I base  The Seven Noble Knights of Lara contains historical figures, but the existence of Ruy Blásquez and Doña Lambra has not been verified, perhaps because no one, even today, would welcome the possibility of being associated with such vile traitors.

Ruy Blásquez – a. k. a. Ruy Velásquez – doesn’t kill a king or even a count. But when he wipes out seven warrior brothers in an epic battle and sends their father to be beheaded, he eliminates an entire generation of soldiers of Castile, leaving himself with all the power for more than ten years at the turn of the eleventh century.

The crime is all the worse because the warriors are his nephews, the sons of his sister. There are few stronger blood ties at this time in history. An uncle is expected to take on an almost nurturing role, ensuring that his nephews realize their potential, especially on the battlefield, and for this surrogate father to cut the knights down in their prime frankly smacks of taboo. Further compounding the betrayal, Ruy Blásquez uses an army of Moorish soldiers to take down his nephews and sends their father to Córdoba, the capital of the Islamic caliphate. His close association with powerful Muslims taints him in the eyes of his Christian neighbors. His actions betray not only his blood relatives, but also the Christian faith.

Although I tell the story from many different points of view in my novel, Ruy Blásquez’s actions are so hard to understand that I dared not take a seat behind his eyes. The source material writers seem to have felt the same taboo. They make an effort to distance the audience from Ruy Blásquez, referring to him as I do here, always with his first and last names, and usually appending “that traitor” or calling him simply “the traitor.” I took a more subtle route: I made him a slippery character, hard to get a handle on in general, so that his incomprehensibility in the betrayal is somewhat believable. The reader is left to conjecture that his wife, Doña Lambra, made him do it.

Doña Lambra, on the other hand, was too much fun not to try to understand. She’s frustrated because she has to marry Ruy Blásquez and covets the nephews’ superior power. She also feels an inconvenient level of sexual tension around her handsome new nephews-in-law, and when they get into an argument and kill her cousin, she snaps. She has to be a little insane to take such a disproportionate revenge, but she also has to be manipulative or influential in order to get Ruy Blásquez to agree, even if he is wishy-washy. It was delightful creating this dangerous beauty the reader loves to hate.

Check back soon for more about how I developed these fascinating characters.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Big Word, Right Word

The mihrab at the mezquita-catedral in Córdoba features a horseshoe arch.
A great debate arose as I shared The Seven Noble Knights of Lara with my husband: reader accessibility. I often wondered during the writing whether my audience was only going to be people who love history. I never wanted to "dumb it down," or go to the other extreme and alienate a reader who might not have picked up a historical novel before, because I believe the story is universal. I'd love to appeal to any reader!

When I brought the book to my critique group, which consists of great writers who happen to lack an interest in historical novels, more often than not, they found it accessible. If there were terms or circumstances particular to tenth-century Spain, I went back and explained them enough to keep an uninitiated reader up to speed without slowing the story down. So that anxiety waned and I pounded out the rest of the book without that internal editor.

Then my husband read it. He's now working in retail, which has shaken his faith in humans' ability to rise to an occasion. He thinks some of the "big" words I use will put readers off and recommends cutting them.

The thing is, sometimes, especially in a historical context, the "big" word is the right word.

The most passionate debate came about because of a couple of architectural terms at the end of the book. Our hero notices a polylobed arch where there was none before. My husband stumbled over "polylobed" and passionately defended its execution. Do you know what a polylobed arch is? If you didn't, did the word's use in the sentence upset you?

A polylobed arch is an arch with many lobes, as seen in this picture. I don't know of any other word that would distinguish this style from other types of arches, so it must be the right word.

Normally I wouldn't put up a fight about something so small, but I want to leave this word in because earlier on the same page, the hero notices a horseshoe arch. That's also a technical term, but my husband didn't reject it because it's more intuitive. It wouldn't be easy to create the same effect without the word "polylobed": "a horseshoe arch here... and an arch over there."

The use of this word didn't bother my editor. My critique group hasn't gotten to the end of the book yet, so their jury's still out. What do you think? Is this an example of a word that's too "big"? Or is it just the right word?