The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England
I love reading about Medieval history, so when I found this book on audible, I was very interested. The book isn't a novel, so much as a popular history based on what it would be like to travel through England between the years of 1300 and 1400 AD. What would you see, smell, and hear? Who would you meet? What would it be like to live there? It's a fascinating concept, one that treats the past more like a living, breathing place than a remote, long dead era.
The author, Ian Mortimer, makes some starling observations. For example, how young everyone is. Because so many people don't live to old age, nearly everyone is under the age of twenty five. At 16, a boy is considered a grown man, one who can lead troops into battle or become a king in his own right. The youthful society goes a long way towards explaining the lack of education and the sometimes fanciful beliefs many people have. Likewise, the catastrophic effects of the Black Death are hard for modern people to comprehend. By the end of the 14th century, England has half the population it had in the beginning. The population didn't recover until the 1600s. Entire villages would be wiped out, so that walking around the countryside might be like being the survivor of a zombie apocalypse (especially since contracting the plague likely meant certain death).
The author also rightly points out that while they may not have bathed as often as modern people, people in the 14th century made an effort to keep clean, despite our beliefs to the contrary. Cleanliness was a sign of good manners, and so prized that people in particularly filthy occupations bathed every day, and soap was a valued commodity. Almost everyone would have washed their faces and hands every morning, and manners required you to wash your hands before every meal. It's true they might not have been clean by modern standards, that doesn't mean they didn't value cleanliness and try to achieve it.
While this book does have a few slow chapters--I found the section on money a bit tedious--overall, it was a fascinating exploration about what it was like to live in a different time. As a writer, I found it an invaluable resource. It gave me great ideas for stories and intriguing details for Medieval settings. I'd recommend it to fantasy/historical fiction writers, as well as anyone interested in Medieval history.
2. The Plantagenets by Dan Jones
I love reading history, and The Plantagenets covers a particularly fascinating and eventful era in English history. It opens with the tragedy of the White Ship, a pivotal moment when the heir to the throne, only legitimate son of Henry I, died in a shipwreck. Without a male heir, Henry I decides to leave the throne to his only remaining legitimate child, the Empress Matilda. From Matilda's line came some of England's best and worst kings (and queens). Kings like Henry II or Edward III are remembered as powerful rulers who dominated their enemies and expanded their territories and influence. Yet, the Plantagenet kings like Edward II, John Lackland (the notorious Prince John of the Robin Hood legends), and Richard II endangered the monarchy and the country with their incompetence, arrogance, and savagery. Their stories are exciting to listen to, and give the listener a great insight into the Medieval world. Although it's a history book, it's almost as exciting as Game of Thrones. All in all, The Plantagenets is an excellent book, and I'd recommend it to anyone interested in history, or any fans of Medieval fantasy.
3. Mindset by Carol Dweck
I've been fascinated by Carol Dweck's research into the psychology of success since I first read about her work in NurtureShock. It reinforced some of what I'd read about in Alfie Kohn's Punished by Rewards, another excellent book that challenges plenty of received wisdom on using praise to control children's behavior. Still I had yet to read Dweck's magnum opus Mindset, so on a trip to the library I decided to reserve a copy. It's been such an amazing and helpful book, I intend to buy a copy to keep around when I have to return it to the library. While I'd previously though of Dweck's research as primarily relating to teaching and parenting, this book goes much deeper into how our mindset effects our relationships, our careers, and our ability to lead a fulfilling life.
After reading Dweck's book, I started thinking about how our mindset effects writers. Writing carries with it an enormous amount of rejection and criticism, and requires an intense, sustained effort for any amount of success. How many people want to write a novel but never finish even a rough draft? Or more likely, how many have a good story idea but never sit down to write it at all? So what does it take to withstand all this adversity and keep writing? A "growth" mindset.
In her book, Dweck shows that some people embrace challenges as learning opportunities. They see failure and rejection as valuable lessons, and learn to accept feedback without allowing the criticism to sap their self-worth. These people have a growth mindset--they believe they can grow their talents and improve themselves with plenty of hard work and effort. Other people have a fixed mindset--they believe that success is dependent on talent and luck alone. They're reluctant to take risks and hate failure, because it's a sign that they're not talented enough to be successful. The fixed mindset discourages effort, because if you have enough talent, everything should be easy for you.
It's easy to slip into a fixed mindset when you've gotten another rejection. It's easy to say, "I'm not good enough, I might as well give up." But it's so much more satisfying and exciting to say, I'll try again. I'll write more stories. I'll write another novel. I'll listen to feedback from my writing group, my beta readers, and anyone else who'll give it to me. I've gotten helpful feedback from editors who rejected me, and I'm so glad they took the time to send more than a form letter. A growth mindset encourages me to take risks with my writing. I'll try a different genre, or try writing short stories in addition to working on a novel, or query for non-fiction articles. Quitting guarantees failure, but if we keep going, if we work hard enough, we just might make it.