Rome: Appreciating Art

Monday, July 16, 2018

Like Florence, Rome is a city filled with art. Actually, some of it is in the Vatican, which isn’t technically part of Rome. But in both cases, much of it is Michelangelo’s work.

The first picture is Michelangelo’s “Pietà” located in St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get a good photo that didn’t include that line. The crowds kept me from finding a better angle, but the biggest problem was that the statue is protected by a glass box. That’s because it was vandalized in 1972, when someone attacked it with a hammer and broke off Mary’s left arm and hand. “Pietà” has since been restored, but it is still a reminder that not everyone values good art. And that’s a shame.

Vatican City also contains some of Michelangelo’s paintings, with the most famous ones being in the Sistine Chapel. I’m not going to talk about the “Creation of Adam” or any of the other frescoes on the ceiling because I think “Last Judgment,” which is on the wall behind the altar, is more interesting.

Photos were not allowed in the Sistine Chapel. Talking wasn’t, either, so the tour guide couldn’t explain anything while we were inside. The Vatican must understand the importance of tour groups, however, because the plaza had a number of identical stations with photos from the Chapel that helped guides explain the art to their groups.

Study the next photo carefully, and look especially at the naked man in the lower right-hand corner with the snake around his body. Then I’ll tell you what our guide told us.

Actually, most of the bodies are naked, and that caused a problem. Michelangelo felt that we should celebrate the bodies God gave us, but not everyone agreed. Biagio da Cesena, who was Pope Paul III’s Papal Master of Ceremonies, made scathing remarks about the painting. Michelangelo got his revenge by painting da Cesena in hell with a snake around his body. When da Cesena saw it, he complained to Pope Paul III, who said that Hell was out of his jurisdiction and the painting would remain as it was.

Michelangelo also sculpted elaborate pieces for grave markers. His “Moses” (shown below) was commissioned by Pope Julius II for his tomb. The tomb was never built, and Moses and some surrounding sculptures (not by Michelangelo) now reside in the San Pietro in Vincoli (St. Peter-in-Chains) church in Rome proper.

Most Romans couldn’t afford such elaborate art to mark their graves, however. The catacombs, which were Christian underground cemeteries, not hiding places, are filled with grave markers like the one below that used simple religious symbols. But whether elaborate or simple, art should be appreciated, not vandalized.

This is the last post about my trip to Italy. We went many other places and saw many other sites while we were there, but I just can’t cover it all.

Next week I’ll return to a subject more directly related to writing.

Rome: The Value of Preserving History

Monday, July 9, 2018

When the popes got control of Rome, they tried to eliminate all reminders of it’s pagan past. This happened after Constantine, whose arch stands near the crumbling colosseum. (That’s his arch in the photo below.) It was the Roman Catholic Church that encouraged the destruction of pagan sites. 
If you look at the first picture and the one below, you will see that the top and outside walls of the colosseum have crumbled and fallen. According to our local guide, the popes allowed or even encouraged people to recycle the building materials—primarily the marble blocks and the iron rods that held the walls together and strengthened the entire structure. (If you look closely at the photo below, you will notice the many holes in the façade where the iron rods were removed.) Without these supports, the walls couldn’t withstand earthquakes and the many natural eroding effects of time.

The popes eventually realized the value of remembering the past and began protecting and even restoring sites like this. But much of the damage had already been done.

Fortunately, much of the colosseum’s history was preserved by writers for whom it was their present.* And we can do the same for subsequent generations by recording what is happening right now. It’s our turn to preserve history.

I can’t resist leaving you with a photo of Roland and me standing in front of the colosseum. But I’m not leaving Rome yet. I’ll have more about it in next week’s post.


* These writers include Dio Cassius and Tertullian. I haven’t read them, but you can try if you want.

Pompeii: Let It Rain

Monday, July 2, 2018

Let it rain water, that is. Not ash.
We almost didn’t get to see Pompeii because it was raining and the people who administer the site close the ruins when the rain makes walking too treacherous. Fortunately for us, they decided to keep the ancient city open that day. It wasn’t the best weather for exploring the ruins or taking pictures, but we had a good local guide and learned a lot. The rain even created some advantages. The guide told us that the crowds would have been heavy and the lines much longer if the weather had been good.

The first photo shows the Greek amphitheater. You can tell it is Greek rather than Roman because it is open on the stage side. The next photo shows how the original residents handled the wet streets. Actually, it wasn’t the rain they worried about. The streets were washed daily by sending a stream of water down them, and anyone who was out at that time used the stepping stones to keep their feet dry. (I stepped on them once for the experience but walked in the street.)

The final photo serves as a reminder of how Pompeii came to its end. Most residents escaped when Mount Vesuvius erupted, but some ignored the warnings and died from suffocation as they were buried by the ash from the volcano. Over time, the bodies rotted away and left cavities in the soft rock. Archeologists poured plaster into the holes and then chipped the soil away, preserving the form of the bodies that had been there.

As I said, Pompeii wasn’t at its best when we saw it, but it was still impressive. And because the rain kept many of the tourists away, we got a better view of it than we would have otherwise.

So of course I thought of a writing analogy. Sometimes we experience serious personal crises that require us to take time away from writing, just as the people who administer Pompeii need to close it when the weather gets too bad. We get sick, or a loved one dies, or something else demands our time, and we need to take a break from writing to handle the situation. But in many cases the rain is an excuse rather than a necessity. That’s when it’s important to write through the rain.

And who knows. It may also be when we achieve our most impressive results.

Assisi: Home of St. Francis

Monday, June 25, 2018

Assisi is perched on the side of a mountain and is a quaint and charming town. It is worth a visit for that alone. However, it is best known as the home of St. Francis of Assisi. Born Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone in 1181 or 1182, he became a humanitarian, writer, and the founder of the Franciscan Order. You may know him best for this prayer:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace; where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console; to be understood, as to understand; to be loved, as to love; for it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.

The town was settled before the Romans arrived, but they are the ones who built the first walls to surround it. That’s the Old Gate in the next picture. It is called that because the town kept growing, and there were eventually three sets of walls and gates.

We saw many interesting sites in Assisi, but the Basilica (Church) of St. Francis was the best of all. That’s the next photo.

The upper level of the Basilica is covered with approximately two dozen frescos showing scenes from St. Francis’s life. The frescos are attributed to Giotto di Bondone and his assistants and were done in the late 1290s. Photos weren’t allowed inside, so I got this one from the Internet.* It shows St. Francis preaching to the birds.

It’s easy to get inspired by other writers when you visit their birthplaces. Especially when those places are as charming as Assisi.


*  The frescos are in the public domain because of their age.


Monday, June 18, 2018

Our next major stop was in Florence, where we spent three nights at the Hotel California. Don’t stay there. (The hotel, that is. Florence is a must see.)

Florence is the birthplace of two famous writers. The first is Carlo Lorenzini (pen name Carlo Collodi), who wrote The Adventures of Pinocchio in the early 1880s. Pinnochio dolls and puppets and souveniers are everywhere throughout the city. I didn’t take any pictures of them, and I regret that now. The drawing at the top of this page came from the Internet and is by Carlo Chiostri, who illustrated the 1901 edition.*

Centuries earlier another famous writer was born in Florence. Dante Alighieri (author of The Divine Comedy) was born sometime around 1265, although his exact birthdate is unknown. He had a very checkered history in his home town and was eventually exiled for alleged corruption. That’s his birthplace in the second picture.

In those days, only the privileged few could read. This was still the case when the Renaissance began. Most people learned history and Bible stories through oral tradition or art, such as the Bible stories cast in metal on the door to the Florence Baptistry (the building where people were baptized). The picture shows only the top half, and even it is a reproduction of the original, which is in safekeeping in the Duomo (cathedral) museum.

Then there is Michelangelo, born in Florence in 1475. His famous statue of David used to stand at the entrance of the Palazzo Vecchio but was replaced by a copy to protect it from vandals. We saw the copy, but we also saw the original in its current home at the Galleria dell ’Accademia. That’s the original in the photo.

For us, Florence was mostly a place to view art. We spent our free day in the Accademia and the larger Uffizi Gallery. At the Uffizi we saw many paintings by Botticelli as well as a few works by Leonardo Da Vinci, Raphael, and Michelangelo. Then we went out for a nice dinner.

It was a great way to spend our 39th wedding anniversary.


* Chiostri’s drawings are in the public domain because of their age.


Monday, June 11, 2018

Our Italian vacation took us to Venice, where master craftsmen create art with glass for the medium. We stayed at the classic Hotel Giorgione, and the first thing we saw upon entering was the huge chandelier that extends from the ceiling almost to the floor. Garish, but very impressive. I guess art in any medium is in the eye of the beholder.
We took a walking tour in the morning and saw sights such as the Grand Canal, St. Mark’s Cathedral, and the Bridge of Sighs. The bridge got that name because prisoners sighed as they walked across it on their way to the dungeons, which was basically a death sentence.

After the local tour, we took a gondola ride and then returned to our hotel. But the walk back didn’t turn our quite as we expected. Instead, we made a discovery that turned out to be common among our tour group: Venice is an easy place to get lost in.
Our main tour guide had given us maps but told us they weren’t much use, and she was right. She told us to follow the signs to Rialto, but that didn’t help much, either, since those signs were few and far between. And when we were finally able to follow them, they took us a round-about way that ended up in the same spot we would have reached by going straight. Roland is convinced that the signs were designed to lead us by certain shops or at least along the streets with the most stores.
I can’t resist a writing analogy here. Stories often take us out of our way. When done for pacing or suspense, those detours lead us by the stores we want to visit. But we have all read books that take us down deserted streets or ones with uninteresting shops. A good writer knows the difference and resists the temptation to use a detour that bores rather than enlightens.
We did make it back to our hotel eventually, and we enjoyed our time in Venice.

Nothing Goes as Planned

Monday, June 4, 2018

We just returned from a seventeen-day vacation to Italy. It was a good trip, but it got off to a bad start. No, I didn’t get arrested, but an Italian police car was one of my first photos from the trip.

Our flight landed in Milan on time, and a van hired by Go Ahead Tours picked us and some of our fellow travelers up at the airport for the one-hour drive to our hotel in Lecco. We were probably about halfway there when the van lost all power and coasted to the side of the road. After waiting in the hot sun for over a half-hour, we were finally rescued by a bus from the same company and taken the rest of the way.

Not a good start, but tomorrow was another day. That morning was set up with an optional excursion (which we didn’t take) and free time for the rest of us. Then we were to join up for a visit to Villa Carlotta and a brief tour of the town of Como. Villa Carlotta (a castle on the other side of Lake Como that had been built for a princess) was part of the package, and we were looking forward to it.

The group that went on the morning excursion made it to their destination and then took a boat ride on the lake before being dropped off at Villa Carlotta, as planned. At noon, the tour bus driver picked us and the others who had opted out of the morning excursion up, again according to plan. But after driving at least an hour along Lake Como through gorgeous mountain scenery, the bus was stopped by a police barricade and the driver was told that the road was closed.

The other group got to see Villa Carlotta but had to find another way back and returned via an excursion boat that took 2 ½ hours. They told us later that Villa Carlotta was overrun with a hundred school children whose teachers exercised no control whatsoever, and the same school children shared the excursion boat with them. That group didn’t see anything of Como.

For the rest of us, the driver took us to Como and said he would pick us up at 7:30 p.m. That gave us over six hours to entertain ourselves in a town with one or two hours of sights. We would have preferred to go back to the hotel but weren’t given that option. To be fair, it would have put a lot of extra miles on the bus and might have put the driver over his legal driving time limit.

After the first two days everything went pretty much as planned and we had a great tour. I highly recommend Go Ahead Tours and we will probably use them again.

Writing can also have unexpected detours. I thought I had my next few books planned. After my current two works in progress, I was going to write about life on the Erie Canal followed by a book on a lighthouse keeper’s daughter. Those are still in the plans, but another idea may take precedence. I don’t remember how I discovered it, but when I heard that many immigrants were stranded on Ellis Island for weeks or even months, I couldn’t get the thought out of my head. And even though I’m not ready to write it yet, I’ve already made lots of notes on a potential plot. I’m much farther ahead on it than on the other two, so it looks as if Ellis Island will be next.

Whether it’s travel or writing, we should be prepared for unexpected detours.

And they aren’t always bad.

Words, Words, Words

Monday, May 28, 2018

This week I’m covering the last two classifications in the rubric. The first has to do with the spoken word as depicted on the page, and the second covers the technicalities of the written word.


Objective 1: To identify who is talking without using irrelevant action or unnecessary dialogue tags.

Notice that the objective talks about unnecessary dialogue tags. I don’t agree with those people who say a writer should never use them. When not overused, “said” and “asked” are valid ways to handle attribution because they tend to fade into the background. But words like “interjected” and “articulated” should be avoided, as should adverbs such as in “said excitedly.” Those tags yell “look at me” instead of disappearing on the page. Instead of “said excitedly,” show her excitement in her actions.

That’s one way to avoid dialogue tags. Try something like this instead:

“It’s from Graham.” Lucy’s eyes sparkled as she grabbed the letter and tore it open.

As with any other action, however, one used for attribution must show characterization or move the story along. Dinner scenes can be especially hard to write because I am tempted to have my characters pass the potatoes or pour another cup of coffee for attribution purposes, and that gets boring after a while. It also sounds forced.

Objective 2: To write dialogue that feels realistic rather than dialogue that is realistic.

We all know how people really talk. “I, uh, saw Sue yesterday at, uh, the grocery store. In the produce section. She, uh, told me to tell you . . . Billy, stop pulling that dog’s tail! Now what was I saying? Oh yes, she, uh, told me to say hi.” Then there are the times when people talk over each other. And so on. Imagine putting real dialogue in a book without losing your reader. Impossible.

If a conversation doesn’t contribute to characterization or move the story along, leave it out. Or maybe you only need part of it. Two friends meet for lunch and talk about trivial things until they finish their dessert. Then Joan tells Cindy that Joan saw Cindy’s husband with another woman. You could provide a brief excerpt from the chit-chat or leave it out altogether and start the conversation with the bombshell. Unless you are using the chit-chat for a purpose, that is. Maybe Joan rushes from one trivial topic to another because she is too nervous to say what is really on her mind. Throwing in an “um” or two can also signal nervousness. But don’t overdo it, or you will still lose your reader.

Dialogue is one place where you should break the grammar rules. People rarely talk in complete sentences, for example, and the informality of their speech varies. If you have a very formal character, you can use his perfect grammar as a distinguishing feature. Otherwise, go ahead and break the grammar rules to make the conversation more realistic if—and this is a big if—the reader can understand the dialogue without slowing down to figure out what is being said.

That’s the problem with using dialects. They can be a lot of work for the reader. I have slave dialect in a book I am currently working on, and I tried oh so hard to get it right. (See the blog post on writing slave dialect that is linked below, which was written before I gave the manuscript to my beta readers.) I even cleared it with an African American writer friend. But when I gave the manuscript to my beta readers, they had too much trouble following it. So now I need to figure out how to provide the flavor without the actual dialect.

For purposes of the rubric, Objectives 1 and 2 are each worth 5% of the score, giving dialogue a total of 10%.

Language Use

Objective 1: To write clearly and concisely.

Any book is worthless if the reader can’t follow it. Writing is communication, and clarity is key. That includes novels and short stories as well as informative articles or blog posts like this one.

One way to NOT write clearly is to use long, convoluted sentences filled with adjectives, adverbs, and prepositional phrases. Another way is to use big words or allusions your reader won’t understand.

Obviously, there are times when you want a scene or some element of it to be ambiguous. But those instances will be infrequent.

When in doubt, keep it simple.

Objective 2: To use purposeful grammar and avoid typographical errors.

Writers who break the grammar rules because they don’t know what they are come across as uneducated. Worse, since grammar rules exist to provide clarity, those who break them out of ignorance may lose their readers along the way.

Notice that the objective talks about purposeful grammar use rather than proper grammar use. It’s okay to break the rules if you do it intentionally to achieve a certain effect. But you should know the grammar rules before you break them.

Here is a quote from Ernest Hemingway:

My attitude toward punctuation is that it ought to be as conventional as possible. The game of golf would lose a great deal if croquet mallets and billiard cues were allowed on the putting green. You ought to be able to show that you can do it a good deal better than anyone else with the regular tools before you have a license to bring in your own improvements. [1925 letter to Horace Liveright, quoted in Ernest Hemingway on Writing. Emphasis in original.]

The second half of the objective speaks to the importance of proofreading. That should be self-evident, so I won’t discuss it here.

For purposes of the rubric, Objective 1 is worth 15% of the score and Objective 2 is worth 5%, giving language use a total of 20%.



For more of my advice on dialogue and language use, check out these earlier blog posts.


Language Use:

Can You See It? Creating a Movie with Words

Monday, May 21, 2018

When I read a good book, I see the characters and the setting and the action in my mind, playing much the way a movie does. But notice the adjective. Only a good book does that.

Today’s blog post discusses those elements that make a good book play a movie in the reader’s mind. As general categories, they cover “show, don’t tell,” action, and description.

Show, Don’t Tell

Objective: To keep the reader interested by showing those aspects of the story that are most important to plot and characterization and telling the rest.

Given that objective, the category may be misnamed. It would be more accurate to say “when to show and when to tell,” or simply “show versus tell.” However, the concept is usually described as “show, don’t tell,” so I’ll stick with that.

I’ve read many different definitions of “showing.” Some limit themselves to action, while others include descriptions of persons, places, and things that include enough detail to visualize the subject. Some definitions embrace entire passages that mix action with simple statements of fact, while others parse out the two. We won’t get into that debate here. For our purposes, if it helps you visualize the scene, it is showing. The best way to describe the difference is with examples.

TELLING: Brian kissed Karen angrily.

SHOWING: Brian grabbed Karen’s arms and gripped them as he smashed his lips into hers.

The writer should show only those aspects of the story that are significant elements of plot and characterization. Showing takes more space than telling does, and if a writer shows everything, the book will be massive. Massive and boring.

It’s impossible to do justice to this concept in the limited space I have here. You can learn more about it in the blog posts linked below.

For purposes of the rubric, the proper use of showing versus telling is worth 10% of the score.


Objective: To use strong verbs and limit actions to those that either develop a character or move the story along.

There is a lot of overlap between this element and the previous one. Action is the strongest way to show. However, it deserves its own category.

There are two points here. First, a good writer will use strong verbs to convey the action at hand. Rather than walking slowly, a character could amble or shuffle along. Or instead of just blowing, the wind might gust or wail. This eliminates those pesky adverbs, too.

Second, we don’t want to hear every detail of the protagonist’s morning routine. If the fact that he had cereal for breakfast becomes important later, then tell us he had cereal for breakfast (a perfect example of when telling works best), but don’t show him pouring it into the bowl, adding milk, and taking a bite. Not unless those actions help develop his character or move the story along, that is. And if nothing about breakfast is important to the story, leave it out. You can find a more extensive discussion of this issue in a post I wrote for the Indiana Writers’ Consortium blog (linked below).

For purposes of the rubric, action is worth 5% of the score.


Objective: To use strong nouns and limit description to that which is a natural part of the story.

The first part of the objective concentrates on using strong nouns. “House” doesn’t say much. “Shanty” and “mansion” do. This is also a good way to eliminate adjectives and tighten your writing.

Then there is the question of how much detail to provide, which may vary with the audience. Some people like to be spoon-fed with a complete physical description of every major player and location. When I was younger, I liked that too. Now I want just enough detail to give me the flavor or atmosphere and let me use my imagination to fill in the rest.

Of course, there are usually some items that are important to the story and need to be described. I’m currently working on a book that takes place during the Civil War siege of Vicksburg. The residents lived in caves, and the setting is crucial. If I left the cave description to the reader’s imagination, the reader would probably imagine something from his or her own experience, which would probably be wrong. So I described the cave and its furnishings, right down to the fact that there were quilts on the sleeping platforms instead of mattresses. But I didn’t describe the quilts, because that isn’t necessary.

Point of view is important here, though. If I had a POV character who loved quilts and examined every detail, then I’d bring the reader along as she did it. For example, “Charlotte ran her fingers over the outline of the log cabin pattern. The blue and green pieces brightened up the dark space, but how long could the quilt survive in the cave before the fabric became dingy and stained?” My character doesn’t think about those things, however, so I didn’t describe them for my readers.

Point of view also affects how the protagonist is described. A person doesn’t normally see himself unless he is looking in a mirror, and even then he might be paying more attention to shaving his face than to admiring it. Furthermore, the mirror trick is often a lazy writer’s tool that doesn’t sound natural. That doesn’t mean you can’t describe your protagonist, but you have to be creative.

For purposes of the rubric, description is worth 5% of the score, giving the movie aspects a total of 20%.



If you want more of my advice on these issues, here is a list of earlier blog posts.

Show, Don’t Tell: