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And now, for something completely different.

As is my custom each May, this weekend I'm at Western Michigan University, attending the annual Kalamazoo International Medieval Studies Congress.  This event, which annually draws thousands of medieval scholars, professors, and serious amateurs, is a place of wonders for anyone interested in the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and early modern Europe.  There's a book room that regularly has me on the verge of chucking my mortgage payment, panels on every imaginable aspect of medieval, Renaissance, and early modern culture, films, the Pseudo Society joke panels on Saturday night, and even a dance where careers can be made or unmade, depending on whether the person one accidentally slam danced into the bar is a tenured professor at one of the Ivies.

It's also a great way for me to forget about the fact that my attic is currently infested with raccoons, about which I will only say that a) those things make a LOT of noise for their size, and b) Gil the Wonder Cat will be very disappointed when they're gone since he has been entertaining himself sniffing at the walls and ceiling where they've been making themselves at home.

Oh yeah.  The nest is directly over my bed.

I think you can see why I'm so happy to be in Michigan while the exterminator works his magic to get the raccoons out and take them far, far away.

Anyway....

My paper this year is called "Coping with Connoisseurship:  Issues in Attribution and Purpose raised by an Indo-Portuguese "Vestment" in the Metropolitan Museum of Art."  It's a look at a quilted garment made sometime between 1575 and the early 1600's, and will touch on issues of attribution, the differences between male and female art collecting at the turn of the last century, and the garment itself, which I've obsessively pored over several times in recent visits to the Met.  I'll also be taking part in a roundtable sponsored by the Higgins Armory on Sunday morning, and any Kossacks at Kalamazoo are invited to show up for the fun.

As one might gather from the above, I'm much too busy to write a diary this week - but never fear!  Tonight I have a guest post from rising fantasy author E.C. Ambrose, author of the Dark Apostle novels.  This yummy new fantasy series involves medieval medicine, war, magic, and a look at heroism from the point of view of a young barber-surgeon, Elisha Barber, and I urge you all to check it out.

I met Ambrose at Arisia last winter when we were on a panel on adapting historical religion to fantasy and science fiction novels.  We hit it off, I blogged about the costuming in the Peter Jackson Hobbit movies for her in February, and she has kindly agreed to return the favor while I'm in Kalamazoo.  I'll turn the floor over to her, so read and enjoy!

When Ellid invited me to write this blog, she told me she usually talks about Guilty Pleasures, but suggested I could write something about my research instead. . .and I realized that, for me, they're often the same thing.  I write a series of gritty fantasy novels, about Medieval surgery, set in 14th century Europe, and I enjoy rolling up my sleeves and digging into that world as often as possible.  It's history, right?  What could possibly be guilt-provoking about that?  It's practically schoolwork, isn't it?

Well, yes, and no.  I have numerous reasons to feel guilty about my research. Sometimes, I feel guilty simply  because of the subject matter.  In order to create a comprehensive picture of my world and my characters' place in it, I need to know about a wide variety of things.  (I can never know everything, more's the pity, but I need to know enough to be convincing.)  

Some of the less savory subjects I've studied include how to skin a corpse, how to perform the recommended surgery for anal fistula, torture techniques of the Middle Ages, and waste disposal.  Did you know London repeatedly had to pass ordinances prohibiting butchers from throwing offal into the Fleet River?  Mmmm—tasty!  Ordinances are often a great way to learn what ordinary people are actually doing, because the powers-that-be have to repeatedly tell them to cut it out.  Magistrates don't pass laws against things nobody's doing.  I am still trying to track down the reference I found to a law against holding jousts inside of churches.  Hey, why not? Long, straight arena, out of the rain, no slippery mud or stones to stumble over?   I don't know how the horses felt about it, but I do enjoy the image of a group of knights, likely with a few casks of ale going around, looking for a place to hold their tournament, and finding their prayers answered by the very House of God.

The torture research was less guilt-provoking than simply disturbing—though I did most of it furtively rather than admit my apparently prurient interests.  I did have to leave an exhibit on torture featuring actual devices and images of them in use.  The display made me feel physically ill.  Sometimes, I feel guilty about that, the intrusion of my humanity into my research.  I did have a great book on the history of torture devices, which was somewhat easier to stomach, but I loaned it to a writer friend and haven't gotten it back, alas.  One of the most disturbing things about the book is the fact that most of the examples they use are modern.  

I don't feel guilty about this stuff in the privacy of my own office, or my own internet connection (though I do wonder what the NSA makes of it. . .)  However, I often get my best stuff through Interlibrary Loan. Yeah, they're probably keeping a record somewhere, in case somebody goes missing, or they're looking for a serial killer in the area.  Actually, my old library in Wilton, featured an iron grate beneath the foundation that I thought would be a great place to stash a body.   Sometimes, I picture what my neighbors would say to the newspapers after my arrest.  Always so quiet. . . too quiet.  Gives a whole new meaning to the term "Guilty Pleasures."

One of my latest finds came from my local library book sale:  Execution Tools and Techniques, by Bart Rommel.  It's not very detailed, but it does include footnotes, and I am a footnote junkie.  A good footnote can lead me half-way across the world.  Now I know I'll need to find a copy of Executions by George V. Bishop and consult p. 144 to find out the whole story of the entombment of Mongol raiders up to the neck by border guards, who then left them to die.  Alas, the footnotes in many of the books I read are in Latin, which drives me, as an amateur historian lacking even the most basic Latin credentials, absolutely bonkers.

Another reference I want to track down was something I heard from a college Medieval History professor about the Inclusae:  devout individuals, often women, who would be walled in to a cell at an abbey with only a small slot to receive bread and water, to live out their days in ascetic contemplation.  Literally "included" in the walls.  

I was thrilled when I got my first e-reader—it's the ultimate Plain Brown Wrapper for material that might make others nervous.  And one of the first books I loaded on it was, of course, the Malleus Malleficarum, or Hammer of the Witches, which was written in 1486 by a Papal inquisitors as a handbook for how to interview accused witches.  At least half of the titles on my reader are non-fiction books I picked up for research purposes, and chances are, when you hear me chortle out loud, it's not at some clever author's bit of sparkling prose, but rather at some diligent researcher's startling, obscure fact, which I know I will make use of some day.  A female Mughal Sultan of Delhi, ruling in her own right?  Good stuff—great stuff from which to make stories.

Which leads me to my second reason to feel guilty about research.  Authors are often asked to recommend new books, or to be on panels about various topics which are usefully illustrated with examples of current authors or stories—the ultimate being those "best books of 2014" or "Stories you recommend for the Hugos" sessions.  And the fact of the matter is, I don't read much fiction.

Oh, don't get me wrong, it's not that I have anything against fiction, and I'll happily pre-order the next Carol Berg title or scour the shelves at a convention to find obscure Tim Powers works (of which there are many).  If I had a thousand extra hours in a week, or even a handful, I would likely spend some of them reading, and my favorite way to celebrate having completed my latest book is to sprawl on a couch or in a hammock reading somebody else's.  

I do try to buy first novels by authors I know (though I don't guarantee to buy the second one).  Like all attendees of the World Fantasy Convention, I get excited about the huge bag of free books, though, with the increase in baggage costs, I must often admit how few I'll read, and leave them behind.  When I'm driving someplace, my head turns at the sight of a "Used Books" sign, and I listened eagerly when Tor editor David Hartwell described an ideally located B&B just steps from two great bookstores.

However, my reading list is extremely particular.   I often use my sister as a pre-screener, sending her new books, and asking her to send them back if they're any good.  I don't have a lot of time, and the time I would have available for reading often has a big overlap with time I could use for writing instead. If I have to choose, writing trumps reading every time.  I don't have time to read books I'm not loving, unless I am trapped on a plane and it's the only book I brought (another reason to love my e-reader—'cause I can always ditch the mediocre book and have dozens more to choose from).  Life is too short to read mediocre books.  

The book that is so bad it is celebrated for virtues entirely non-literary is a concept I can get behind, and I do miss the Kirk Poland Memorial Bad Prose competition, once held annually at Readercon, where contestants tried to complete a passage of truly dreadful prose from an actual published work. I know there were professional authors who disdained this event because it seemed to celebrate the worst of our brotherhood and exposed the occasional poor judgment of our partners in publishing, but there are also many authors who were inspired to write by the thought that "I could do better than that."  The Kirk Poland also gave us—neurotic, self-centered artistes that we are—a chance to see that, even when we feared our own work was drivel, most of us are doing just fine.  Aside from those poor souls who heard a passage read and realized it was one of their own, of course.

But the bottom line to my reading habits is, when I find myself in one of those conversations where people want to know what novels or authors I would recommend,  I probably get that deer-in-the-headlights look and recommend somebody I know who's writing something like that—or I distract them with some dazzling bit of research I've come across.  Novel recommendations? Hmm. . . let me think about that.  Say, did you know that, during the Middle Ages in England, the position of the royal toilet cleaner—the 'Groom of the Stall' was highly coveted as a way for an ambitious young man of low birth to enter royal service and perhaps move up to greater things, through his, er, close contact with nobility?  

I could find a story idea at any moment in my reading.  And, when I discover that tiny, gleaming bit of fact that leads me to a tale, I don't feel guilty in the least.

E.C. Ambrose

E. C. Ambrose is the author of "The Dark Apostle" historical fantasy series about a medieval barber surgeon launched July 2013 with Elisha Barber from DAW books, and continuing with Elisha Magus July 2014 . Library Journal's starred review described Elisha Barber as "painfully elegant, beautifully told." The author blogs about the intersections between history and fantasy at ecambrose.wordpress.com and can also be found at www.theDarkApostle.com or on facebook/ECAmbroseauthor.  Published works include "The Romance of Ruins" in Clarkesworld, and "Custom of the Sea," winner of the Tenebris Press Flash Fiction Contest 2012.  E. C. spends too much time in a tiny office in New England with a mournful black lab lurking under the desk.

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So, my friends...what are your guilty pleasures?  I'll be checking in tonight later, so don't be shy....

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