Tuesday, July 01, 2008

New Beginning 523

Chanis stood at her eldest brother's grave. The graveyard was empty, except for marker-stones and weedy grass. A few of the other graves bore small, still-smoldering grave offerings. The Holy Bishop said that grave-offerings were pagan nonsense, and the next thing to rank heresy. Chanis always found them comforting, however, especially when she felt she needed to ask the dead permission for something.

She knelt, and drew from her pocket a small pouch of herbs. She spilled a modest pile into the cup on the top of the grave-marker, and lit it with her taper. A wisp of black smoke curled up.

"Well, Marak." The girl sighed. "I never did like you, but I always felt bad, for Father's sake, that you were killed. I know you...lived the feud, but...it's got to end. If, when Grandmother was the Tosek, she had convinced the Jahtan to--it has to stop some time. Please, do not hate me for what I seek to do."

Chanis rose smoothly, dusted stray grass off of her knees, and padded quietly to a final grave. Her scholar's robes swirled gently around her bare feet. She knelt, shook a generous heap of herbs into the little stone depression, and lit it. The acrid smoke stung her eyes almost as much as her unshed tears.

"The secret ingredient," she said, "is herbes de provence. Allez cuisine."

Marak had lost too many battles, and the ratings had sunk like a pierogi in burgoo. They'd had to try something new, something avant garde. But this?

Challenger Chef Achatz added more herbs to the depression on another grave marker, to smoke a sliver of haddock, and Chanis felt the sting of humiliation. Filming Iron Chef America in Arlington National Cemetery . . . she should have taken the job with Rachael Ray.


Opening: anon......Continuation: Mignon

39 comments:

Evil Editor said...

Some unchosen continuations:


Marak's ghost gazed at Chanis as she walked away from his grave. He swept a spectral hand through the smoldering herbs, smiling at the offering his sister had made to him.

Another spirit appeared beside him.
"What in the world is a Tosek, and who are the Jahtan?" the spirit asked.

Marak shrugged, "Hell if I know. I've been too long dead to know what my little sister was going on about."

"You're not going to try to give her guidance?"

"Find me a Tosek and a Jahtan, and maybe I will."

--Xiexie



"I was going to--but then you always were--when Grandmother was alive...if only father had known that...this whole thing never would have happened if I could just finish a sentence. But then again, I never told you about..."

She paused, wiping away a tear. No matter what Pixar would say, short term memory loss wasn't funny.

What was she there for again?

--Kiersten



She fanned the smoldering pile, willing it to life. The smoke rose and slowly took shape. A lot of shape. At last the shade of a corpulent woman in a skirt and brilliant white blouse wavered between life and death.

Chanis smiled. "Julia Childs! Perfect. Just a few more recipes and I can finally finish Heavenly Recipes From The Dead and get away from this stupid family and its feud."

--Julie Weathers


She turned to go. In life, he would have killed her for borrowing his Wii, but at least she had asked permission this time.

--Kiersten


Whoa, she thought. Pagans knew a little bit about herb.

Whoa.

Charis wondered if the Bishop knew why this rank heresy always gave her the munchies.

--Pacatrue

Evil Editor said...

Chanis always found grave offerings comforting, when she felt she needed to ask the dead permission for something. But she makes the offering at Marak's grave marker, and says Please don't hate me, without asking permission for aything. In fact, she's basically saying, I'm going through with my plan whether you like it or not. Possibly a minor point.


If, when Grandmother was the Tosek, she had convinced the Jahtan to--

could be truncated to If, when Grandmother was the Tosek, she had--

...thus hitting us with one fewer undefined word in the opening.

Dave F. said...

I think that the first five words of the second sentence can be eliminated. Try it as:
Chanis stood alone with the marker-stones and weedy grass at her eldest brother's grave.

And I would say - "The Holy Bishop called grave-offerings pagan nonsense. The next thing to rank heresy.

As the action goes, perhaps the last sentence of paragraph one can be made the last sentence of paragraph two.
Chanis always found them comforting, however, especially when she felt she needed to ask the dead permission for something.
Then as the wisp of black smoke curls up, we hear the internal dialog of how she finds the offering comforting and of her intent to speak to her dead brother in the third paragraph.

I know that you'll say but she's responding to the Bishop and that sounds logical but it's a false logic. She's there because SHE wants the counsel of the dead. If you take out the sentence about the Bishop's disapproval, the real thought is still there. The grave offerings comfort Chanis when she needs to make a big decision. Her actions would be the same regardless of the Bishop's thoughts. I like the Bishop's thoughts as a detail because it portends stuff in the story AND it ties in with the other offerings so that disobey the Bishop.

As you have written it, that sentence interrupts the flow. I think it works better after she lights the sacrifice.

It's an exotic world and an intriguing opening. Keep it tight. Don't junk it up with lots of stuff. It reads well.

Now that continuation. Very funny. Iron Chef in Arlington, growl, snarl... and insulting Rachel Ray (well really, I liked that part)

Kanani said...

Because it's happened in the first three sentences, check through your prose to look for repeated words. Try combining sentences and also eliminating words and phrases for both clarity and strength.

As they say, writing is rewriting.
Good luck!

Bernita said...

Another minor point and just because I grow herbs.
Too often I see the word thrown in to imply the arcane or the mystical, a generality without worldbuilding effort. So am curious to know if she uses a specific herb for this contact ritual.

Per EE's point,I suppose she's asking forgiveness from one and permission from the other but you have combined the two by announcing permission at the beginning.

Anonymous said...

Loved the continuation!!! And also Kier's 1st unchosen. It seemed to me that this opening was expanded. (was the 3rd para added later?)Anyway, I agree with the comments re: permission/declaration, agree with Bernita that I'd like the herb named, and damn me! but I want a little more progress or something with a punch soon. She is in a graveyard, creepy, smokey. . . BTW, I liked this for the setting and I'm curious to read on.

PS tried to write a cont for this but didn't submit.

ME

writtenwyrdd said...

I confess, this didn't work for me. There's scene description, irrelevant background info and a character talking in stilted dialog to a grave. It reads awkwardly and there's nothing here to hook my interest because nothing is happening yet. I recommend starting at that point.

Being nitpicky, I have to point out that in paragraph 1 you give us irrelevant info with the HOly Bishop sentence. And in paragraph 2, your character sighs words. I did like that description of the graveside setting, though. I think that could have been a good start, but the writing makes the scene a non-event in that she's too passive, nothing is happening.

To keep this scene as the start, you might consider rearranging things. Have those first 2 sentences, omit the background lines that follow. Have her kneel and then have her speak in a manner that indicates she's going to do it. Something like, "I'm not asking permission, but I owe it to you to you to ask your forgiveness, Marak. I'm going to end this stupid fued that killed you. I'm going to end it for (whomever)." And she lights the pyre for the offering.

That is action that shows her in the process of doing something instead of passive.

benwah said...

I agree with the other comments re: repeated words and the potential inconsistency about what your MC is asking the dead.

I particularly liked the mood you established. The dialogue struck me as rather stilted, however. May just be a stylistic thing, but I wouldn't expect her to be quite so stiff talking to her dead brother. Particularly the brother she doesn't care is dead.

wendy said...

Your setting shows good potential.

However, (sorry had to) you've got a laundry list of "Chanis did" going here. Try to find a way to shake it up.

For example:
"She spilled a modest pile into the cup on the top of the grave-marker, and lit it with her taper."

Is the most important thing happening in this sentence that she spilled the herbs or did the notable action come through lighting it?

Maybe:
Spilling a modest pile on the grave's marker Chanis lit it with her taper.

Anyway, hope this is useful. (not just irritating!)

Good luck!

whoever said...

"As you know Bob, I never did like you..." I think her whole "talk" to her brother sounds very fake because it is solely for the reader's benefit. I think just paring her words down to, "Please do not hate me for what I seek to do" would be more real and more intriguing.

BuffySquirrel said...

Spilling a modest pile on the grave's marker Chanis lit it with her taper.

I dislike this on so many levels....

stick and move said...

Buffy, I have to agree, I dislike your rewrite of the author's prose. It sounds so much better the way the author wrote it:

She spilled a modest pile into the cup on the top of the grave-marker, and lit it with her taper.

talpianna said...

To me the most interesting thing about that sentence was that even though the Bishop has condemned the practice, the cup for burning herbs seems to be a standard fixture of grave markers.

freddie said...

The biggest problem I have with this is the stilted monologue. I'd either use contractions all the way through or get rid of them all together. The "do not" at the end just sounds weak after we've been reading contractions throughout the rest of the monologue.

Bernita, I remember I saw a blog post of yours a while ago about the books you have on herbs and their role in rituals/history, etc (the blog post had a picture of your gorgeous herb garden). I asked if you'd be willing to share the titles of some of those books. My Amazon searches have only turned up Grow Your Own Herb guides, but I'm interested in learning more about herbs for world-building. But I sorta forgot to click the little e-mail box there and haven't been able to find the post since, so I don't know if you ever replied. Thanks!

Bernita said...

Freddie, I did.
I believe one of the books I mentioned was "Old-Fashioned Herbal Remedies" by W.T Fernie M.D., published in 1980 by Coles Publishing Company.
Contains a lot of historical data, quaint country practices, and references to early herbals.
All extrapolatable.
Another nice one is "Herb Handbook" Dawn McCleod, 1972 edition,Wilshire Book Company.

freddie said...

Thank you, Bernita!

freddie said...

You know, Bernita, Neil Gaiman (yes, I'm referencing him again) makes a little joke about this very thing in Anansi Boys.

wendy said...

Actually, I'm not much for the re-write of that sentence either. I was simply trying to show the author he/she could do more than "Chanis did" this, that, and the other. I probably should have left off the example - didn't mean to distract.

talpianna said...

Freddie, One Spirit, the book club in the BOMC family that has New Age stuff, has a number of books about herbs--some medicinal, some culinary, some magical.

freddie said...

Thank you, Tal!

Melissa said...

I'm the author in question... I shall ramble on a bit about what you Nice People have said.

I'm not entirely certain if this is the best place to start the story or not...

If I do stick with this opening, I think you're right about the asking permission thing, EE. I should probably change it to "ask something". Also may want to tone down the Holy Bishop's opinion of the practice... it's a matter of a theological shift, and the place where Chanis lives being something of a backwater...

And I think I may need to leave the Jahtan in that phrase, since 2 paragraphs later, she refers to them again, in a way that will reasonably explain who they are, but that may seem even more out of the blue if the prior sentence isn't there...

And, Dave, I don't think your edit to the first paragraph works, because it makes the third sentence a bit out-of-the-blue, or at least so it feels to me. I do want it made clear that she's spent the morning chatting to her dead relatives, before doing this Major Thing.

Part of Chanis's stiltedness and/or longwindedness is that she's nerving herself up for and procrastinating about the next and final grave, her beloved grandfather.

I never did decide exactly what the dried herb blend was, Bernita. It was originally going to be cedar shavings, but I determined that they probably wouldn't burn how I wanted without some kind of accelerant, whereas dried leaves should present no such problems. Main point is "something with fragrant smoke, to get the attention of and please the dead person you want to talk to". I went with herbs rather than some kind of prepared incense because I wanted something that's an inexpensive local product, that one can use fairly casually; not something expensive and imported that would only be hauled out for holy days or whatever. If you have any particular suggestions, I'd love to hear 'em. If nothing else, I may have her pinch some rosemary from the cooks or something next time she goes out to talk to her grandfather, on the grounds that he always liked rosemary (or whatever). Chanis may not even know what exactly is *in* the packets, it's likely some mix the herbwife makes in her spare time from what she doesn't need for her medicines.

It was, at least, not my *intent* to imply that she sighed words, writtenwyrdd. I was trying to indicate that she spoke, sighed, then spoke again. And I do have it punctuated thuswise (periods, not commas).

Whoever, you're absolutely right about the "as you know, Bob"ness of her dialogue there. I think I'll make some of it internal instead. She can as-you-know her own brainpan all she likes, that's perfectly kosher.

I almost wrote a continuation for this where she was raising her dead relatives as zombies, though I wasn't sure of the protocol on writing a continuation for my own entry...

That should be all, I'll be posting a rewrite in a bit.

Melissa said...

Guh, did a long comment, I hope it's merely delayed, and not et.
Using some suggestions (and including the next paragraph, since it's shorter now), here's the new version of the opening.

Chanis stood at her eldest brother's grave. The graveyard was empty, except for marker-stones and weedy grass. A few of the other graves bore small, still-smoldering offerings. The Holy Bishop said that grave-offerings were pagan nonsense, but Chanis always found them comforting, especially when she felt she needed to ask something of the dead.
She knelt, spilled a modest pile of herbs into the cup on the top of the grave-marker, and lit it with her taper. A wisp of black smoke curled up.
"Well, Marak." The girl sighed. She didn't really miss Marak, and sometimes guiltily suspected that he knew. "I know you...lived the feud, but...it's got to end. If, when Grandmother was the Tosek, she had convinced the Jahtan... It has to stop some time. Please, do not hate me for what I seek to do."
Chanis rose smoothly, dusted stray grass off of her knees, and padded quietly to a final grave. Her scholar's robes swirled gently around her bare feet. She knelt, emptied her pouch of herbs into the little stone depression, and lit the generous mound. The acrid smoke stung her eyes almost as much as her unshed tears.
"Grandfather." Her voice was soft, reverent. "The day you were killed was the closest I ever came to hating the Jahtans more than I hated the feud. But...you wouldn't have wanted it that way, I know you wouldn't have." Tears slipped down her cheeks to soak into the dark, old velvet of her robe.

Bernita said...

Melissa, I would suggest that a society which has developed a tradition of grave markers provided with facilities for burnt offerings has also developed a strong tradition of appropriate ritual herbs for the purpose; and that all members of that society would be aware of such sacred herb conventions.
Parsley, for example, was originally dedicated to Persephone and prominent in Greek funeral rites.
Marjoram at graveside was considered an augury for happiness in the after-life.
Rosemary also was used as an incence.So has tobacco.

Bernita said...

Sorry- "incense."

wendy said...

Much better flow, and the setting is coming alive too.

Phoenix said...

Hi Melissa: I'm with Wendy. The narrative here does flow much better. I think the dialog could still use a bit of a tweak, though. I am a HUGE fan and user of ellipses; however, in these dialog snippets they don't quite seem intuitively placed. For instance, you're stopping the reader at "I know you" and the reader thinks, well, yes, he's her brother so she ought to know him. Then you introduce "lived the feud" and it feels completely disconnected from the "I know you" and it takes a re-read to get you mean "I know you lived the feud."

That, coupled with the very formal speech pattern, is what continues to make this dialog snippet stilted. Does she speak like this throughout the whole book? You do want your characters to sound different, but you want your MC's language to be easiest on the ear.

"Well, Marak, I'm back again as promised. Did you think I wouldn't come?" Chanis didn't really miss Marak and, guiltily, suspected that he knew. "I know you lived the feud, but it's got to end. If Grandmother had just convinced the Jahtan before --" The words caught for a moment in her throat. She swallowed past them, refusing to relive the memory. "It has to stop some time. Please, don't hate me for what I go to do."

Also, Chanis is padding quietly toward a "final" grave when we've only seen her visit one.

I also had a bit of a problem with Chanis' voice being soft and reverent while she's speaking of how much she hated the Jahtans. Try saying that sentence in a reverent way. You can't. It comes out bitter. Perhaps her voice is soft and reverent only when she says, "Grandfather," but you don't give an indication that there's a change in demeanor. Perhaps saying "She spoke the word softly, reverently" would help clear up that nit.

Dave F. said...

Melissa,
Would you do me a favor. I don't want to voice an opinion on the revision until I can really read it.
But I will say this. Stand in the middle of your room and read it as a speech. You don't need anyone in the room, just you and the words. Read it literally as it is written and not as you want to hear it. Sometimes, it is the rhythm of words or their cadence that when it is spoken. Again, I make no comment on the revision other than read it aloud.

I must eat a very late dinner and occupy myself with personal matters. I'll try to read the revision again later.

talpianna said...

Sage is used by Native Americans for "smudging" (ritual cleansing) and is mildly hallucinogenic. Lavender is also commonly used in many magical rituals. Rue is associated with death and grief, and rosemary with remembrance, as Ophelia's speech mentions. And tansy is derived from "thanatos" (death).

Melissa said...

Bernita: the way I'm picturing the grave offering thing... there's different things burned at different times/for different occasions. For the actual funeral, and at day-of-the-dead-equivalent celebrations, there's very specific things (either herbal blends, or prepared incense of some kind), but for, in effect, calling the dead up for a chat, anything that burns with a pleasant smell (or, in a sufficient pinch, anything that burns) will do. There's customary things (rosemary is definitely one of them), but every herbwife will have her own typical blend, based in part on what grows well in the area...

Melissa said...

Phoenix: I'm trying to indicate longish pauses, would hyphens be better than elipses there?

The MC is a scholar, her speech does tend to be a bit on the formal side...

As far as the soft and reverent... she's at least a little bit ashamed of feeling the way she did about the other clan...

and, the final grave? I implied from the initial scene description (reasonably clearly, I thought) that she had visited several other graves, that's why there's little smoldering piles of herbs elsewhere in the graveyard. There's no one else there, and I don't think a small pile of dried herbs would burn for very long at all...

Dave: the only bit that feels awkward to me, read aloud, was the bit about "when Grandmother was the Tosek"... I'm not sure how to rephrase it to convey the information I was hoping to convey... said info being 1. Grandma was the Tosek (head of the Tosek clan), 2. She isn't any more, 3. The other clan is the Jahtan, and 4. She never managed to broker any kind of peace with the other clan (or, at least, that's what the sentence would say if it didn't stop before it got there) (er, that is, the sentence she's trying to say before she cuts herself off boils down to "If Grandma had managed to broker peace with the Jahtans back when she was the Tosek, then...)

talpianna said...

Usually the way of indicating the head of the clan is "The" with a capital T, as in "Wherever The MacGregor sits is the head of the table."

Bernita said...

According to Dodonaeus, tansy signifies immortality ("athanatos/athanasia") either because of the long-lasting flower or because it was used to preserve the dead from corruption.
An herb choice might depend on when and where the story is set.
If it's in an alternative universe, perhaps a made-up term would be best -
rosemary having decidedly Christian connections as a name.

Phoenix said...

I hope others weigh in on whether or not the first paragraph makes it clear Chanis is the one who's lit the offerings on the other graves and is making the rounds. I didn't catch that was what was happening, especially with the 'asking something of the dead' reference. Is she asking something of everyone she visits? But maybe it's just me being dense.

Ellipses are a good way to indicate trailing off and pauses. M-dashes indicate a cutting off of a thought. But you still have to help the reader along. I used the m-dash in my example because I felt Chanis wouldn't be trailing off when speaking of her grandmother and the Jahtan. I paused the monologue and gave her a reaction to indicate the pause there. I also think maybe you can indicate grandma was the Tosek at a later time. It's a little awkward here, as you even note. You give the reader two unfamiliar terms in that sentence, and I don't think Chanis would necessarily be thinking within that frame reference. I don't think many of us say, "If, when Reagan was president, he hadn't done X..." We simply say "If Reagan hadn't done X ..." and based on context it's implied that it means during his term.

I'm not sure what I as reader am supposed to make of the long pauses in that snippet anyway. Chanis doesn't particularly love or miss her brother, so what do the pauses mean when she's speaking to him? That she's unsure of what she's about to do? That's she's trying to spare his feelings? The pauses didn't really seem to add to our understanding of Chanis or the situation, which is why I left out any ellipses in my rewrite.

For me, "soft and reverent" don't indicate shame. Do you even need that sentence there if that's the emotion you're going after?

These are nits I know, but the dialog must ring true, and right now it's tripping me up a bit in what's otherwise a very readable passage.

talpianna said...

Bernita, I thought that the flower of immortality was the amaranth. Check out the Wikipedia entry, especially the "Myth and Legend" section.

"Immortal amarant, a flower which once
In paradise, fast by the tree of life,
Began to bloom; but soon for man's offence
To heaven removed, where first it grew, there grows,
And flowers aloft, shading the fount of life,
And where the river of bliss through midst of heaven
Rolls o'er elysian flowers her amber stream:
With these that never fade the spirits elect
Bind their resplendent locks."
---Milton, PARADISE LOST

talpianna said...

Apparently tansy comes from the Latin name Tanacetum; www.dictionary.com offers an assortment of derivations:

[Origin: 1225–75; ME < OF tanesie, aph. var. of atanesie < ML athanasia < Gk athanasía immortality, equiv. to a- a-6 + thánat(os) death (see Thanatos) + -ia -y3, with ti < si]

[Middle English, from Old French tanesie, from Vulgar Latin *tanacēta, from Late Latin tanacētum, wormwood.]

tansy

(Tanacetum vulgare), c.1265, from O.Fr. tanesie (13c.), from Gallo-Romance *tanaceta, from L.L. tanacetum "wormwood," from aphetic form of Gk. athanasia "immortality," so called probably for its persistence. English folklore associates it with pregnancy, either as an aid to contraception or to provoke miscarriage.

Tan"sy\, n. [OE. tansaye, F. tanaise; cf. It. & Sp. tanaceto, NL. tanacetum, Pg. atanasia, athanasia, Gr. 'aqanasi`a immortality, fr. 'aqa`natos immortal; 'a priv. + qa`natos death.]

It has some medicinal uses but is primarily used as a vermifuge and insecticide/insect repellant.

Melissa said...

Bernita: I figure rosemary falls under the usual translation conventions...
Talpianna, you may be right, I'll probably do that.
Phoenix: yeah, she was kind of making the rounds before she went off to try to end the feud.
I probably still have to tweak the dialog some, which may involve change or elimination of the pauses, but basically, I'm kind of trying to indicate that she's... upset, from thinking about all her relatives that died, as well as trying to nerve herself up for a confrontation with her father.
Hrm. [ponders dialog and surrounding bits]
"Well, Marak." The girl sighed. She didn't really miss Marak, and sometimes guiltily suspected that he knew. "I...I know you lived the feud, but...it's got to end. If Grandmother had only managed to make that deal with the Jahtans, back when she was The Tosek... It has to stop some time. Please, do not hate me for what I seek to do."

"Grandfather." Her voice was nearly inaudible. "The day you were killed was the closest I ever came to hating the Jahtans more than I hated the feud. But...you wouldn't have wanted it that way, I know you wouldn't have."


Is that any better?

Bernita said...

According to my herbals, Tal, it was used for much more than that, also as a dye herb.
Some nice, rich recipes for tansy cake and puddings.

Phoenix said...

upset, from thinking about all her relatives that died, as well as trying to nerve herself up for a confrontation with her father.

That's asking a lot of this bit of dialog when the reader doesn't know Chanis yet or really what's going on yet. The pause between "The Tosek" and "it has to stop" works better, but are the rest necessary? Just think about it.

Her voice was nearly inaudible. Really, I'm not sure you need a descriptor about her voice here at all. The words here really carry the emotion.

Melissa said...

Phoenix: well, I'm not asking that this bit of dialogue carry all that detail, just the general concept of "I am veryvery upset/stressed/emotional" in addition to its actual textual meaning. I'm just, ya know, explaining to you *why* she's very stressed/upset/emotional. Because you won't get to read the rest of the story and see it for yourself.