How One Visit Changed a Life and a Village


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When I was researching my post about seventh-century Frankish Saint Richarius (also called Riquier), I found myself asking: What if? What if those two Irish missionaries had not come to Centula, as it was known at the time? What if Richarius had not offered his hospitality?

We’ll never know, but after that visit, Richarius and his village were never the same. Read my post at English Historical Fiction Authors to find out more.

St. Riquier Abbey

A 17th century illustration of St. Riquier Abbey, by Dom Germain (Bibliothèque Nationale de France) public domain via Wikimedia Commons

A Heroine’s Vocation Drawn from History


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Hand of Fire Tour GraphicIt’s my pleasure to welcome friend and fellow Fireship Press author Judith Starkston as she introduces her debut Hand of Fire to the world. Judith’s book has been getting a lot of attention and deservedly so (read my review on Goodreads). Today, Judith talks about how she discovered her heroine’s profession. – Kim

By Judith Starkston

Judith StarkstonThe Trojan War threatens Troy’s allies, and the Greek supply raids spread. A young healing priestess, designated as future queen, must defend her city against both divine anger and invading Greeks. She finds strength in visions of a handsome warrior god. Will that be enough when the half-immortal Achilles attacks?

Hand of Fire, a tale of resilience and hope, blends history and legend in the untold story of Achilles’s famous captive, Briseis.

That’s a “back cover” intro to my novel Hand of Fire. It’s clear this healing priestess, Briseis, has a lot on her hands, trouble both mortal and divine. But just what is a “healing priestess”?

The term is actually my attempt to translate a Hittite word, hasawa. These highly respected women did everything from officiating at major festivals where they were entrusted with the fertility of crops, herds and women, to delivering babies, to doctoring illnesses, to restoring harmony between gods and men (there’s a no-stress job!).

But Hittite? Why am I translating Hittite, I hear the readers of this blog asking. Isn’t this book about Trojans? Cue that screeching sound of a record going backward. First off, Briseis was actually a princess in Lyrnessos, a city allied to Troy—so says Homer, the epic poet from about 3,000 years ago who brings us the bare bones of Briseis’s story. Briseis ended up at Troy as a captive of the Greeks.

Corum Museum cuneiform tabletThe Hittites come into the picture because they controlled what we now think of as Turkey during this Late Bronze Age time, and Troy was a semi-independent kingdom on the edge of the Hittite Empire. Trojans and Hittites share the same cultural, religious, and political traditions to a large extent. We happen, through the vagaries of archaeological preservation, to know a lot more about the Hittites than we do about the Trojans. Amazingly, huge Hittite libraries of cuneiform clay tablets have been excavated and translated in the last decade or two. For the historical novelist in search of accurate but vivid details about this period to build her characters and their world, the Hittite libraries are a superb place to go.

And there, on those tablets (or rather the translations of them), I found the materials for a flesh and blood version of one of these powerful, literate healing priestesses. The rites she performed, the beliefs she held dear, the roles she served within her society. These women combined recitation of sacred tales with precise rites—we’d call them magical, for the most part. They believed their words, their stories, had power in a very concrete way. This is a very appealing theme to a novelist—the transformative capacity of words.

The discovery of the hasawa came as an exciting revelation to me. I had been looking for a woman who psychologically could fall in love with Achilles (that’s what Homer claims)—a warrior who is also a poet-bard and a healer. It’s complicated, since Achilles has destroyed Briseis’s life and killed her brothers, not such a romantic introduction. But now I’d found two deep bonds—stories and healing—that could create a bridge between these two.

Sometimes history completely astounds me. There she was. A perfect job for Briseis written down by her real life compatriots.

I did find one other bond between Achilles, the warrior/poet-bard/healer, and Briseis. That was another revelation that came out of the blue, although I think its source was more primal, certainly more disturbing. It does involve weapons, but that’s all I’m telling. You’ll have to read Hand of Fire to find out how Briseis overcame the final hurdle and fell in love with Achilles, that half-immortal, brilliant hunk. Hmm? How bad could that have been?

perf6.000x9.000.inddJudith Starkston writes historical fiction and mysteries set in Troy and the Hittite Empire. Judith is a classicist (BA University of California, Santa Cruz, MA Cornell University) who taught high school English, Latin, and humanities. She and her husband have two grown children and live in Arizona with their golden retriever Socrates. Find an excerpt, Q&A, book reviews, ancient recipes, historical background as well as on-going information about the historical fiction community on her website You can also connect with her on Facebook and Twitter and visit on Goodreads Hand of Fire page.

The Colorful Signature of Each Element


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In this installment on the history of atom theory, physics professor (and my dad) Dean Zollman discusses how a chemist and a physicist teamed up to figure out why dark lines appeared in spectra.

By Dean Zollman

Dean ZollmanLast month, we saw one of the mysteries in the early days of studying light emitted by matter. When scientists looked at the spectrum of the sun, they saw dark lines in the rainbow of colors. The lines were named after Joseph von Fraunhofer (1787 – 1826) because he investigated them thoroughly. The mystery came when Fraunhofer compared the wavelengths of the dark lines with those of bright lines found in light emitted by certain salts when they were burned. Why did some of the wavelengths of the dark lines in the solar spectrum match the bright lines emitted by matter when it was heated in the laboratory?

Gustav Robert Kirchhoff and Robert Bunsen

Gustav Robert Kirchhoff (left) and Robert Bunsen (Courtesy Edgar Fahs Smith Memorial Collection, Department of Special Collections, University of Pennsylvania Library, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Sorting out this mystery took a physicist and a chemist who today are known primarily for other contributions in advancing science during the 19th century. Gustav Kirchhoff (1824 – 1887) was the physicist. In addition to his work in spectroscopy, he developed rules for analyzing electrical circuits and an equation for the heat released in a chemical reaction. Robert Bunsen (1811 – 1899), the chemist, is most famous for the Bunsen burner, the device used by all of us who took a chemistry course in high school or college. Its most important property is that when properly adjusted it has a colorless flame.

Bunsen met Kirchhoff while he was on a travel grant and visited Breslau (now Wroclaw, Poland), where Kirchhoff was a professor. One account that I read said that Bunsen’s most important discovery while traveling was Kirchhoff. Later, Bunsen became a professor of chemistry at the University of Heidelberg and arranged for Kirchhoff to become a professor of physics in Heidelberg. There, they collaborated on measuring and understanding the light coming from matter.

Hold the Salt

Prior to Bunsen and Kirchhoff’s studies, an important development by William Swan (1818 – 1894) set the stage nicely. We saw in the last post that two closely spaced bright yellow lines were present in almost all spectra that scientists looked at. Swan did a series of carefully controlled experiments to identify those lines. He used a Bunsen burner with its colorless flame and put the substances on a platinum wire because platinum did not emit light.

In his experiments, he would dip a wire in distilled water and look at the light emission. Then, he would try minute quantities of a salt. He found that even the smallest amount of sodium chloride (ordinary table salt) would produce the yellow lines. Thus, he could conclude that the yellow light that seemed to come from everything was actually coming from sodium chloride. He was able to narrow the emission to the sodium in the salt. This work was confirmed by Volkert van der Willigen (1822 – 1878).

The conclusion was that previous investigators had not been careful in making their substances pure. They always had some contamination of salt. So, they always saw that yellow light and frequently got somewhat confusing results because of the impurities. (If you ever did flames tests in high school chemistry, you probably had the same problem. I certainly did.)

At that time the reigning expert on creating pure substances was Robert Bunsen. He and Kirchhoff teamed up to investigate the spectra of various elements. They devised a spectroscope which is shown below. This drawing appeared in an article published in Annalen der Physik und der Chemie in 1860. The item label F in the middle is the prism that broke the light into it constituent colors.


Kirchhoff-Bunsen spectroscope (from Annalen der Physik und der Chemie, Poggendorff, Vol. 110, 1860, public domain image via Wikimedia Commons)

These studies showed that each metal emitted a unique spectrum when it was heated in a flame. Now a spectrum could be used to identify the components of a substance. Further, one could discover new materials by finding lines in spectra which were not identified with any known substance. Bunsen and Kirchhoff discovered two previously unidentified elements – cesium and rubidium. Each of these elements was named for some of the light that it emitted. Cesium is derived caesius, the Latin word for sky blue. The name rubidium is related to the Latin word for dark red.

In the Annalen der Physik und der Chemie paper, they stated “Spectrum analysis, which, as we hope we have shown, offers a wonderfully simple means for discovering the smallest traces of certain elements in terrestrial substances, also opens to chemical research a hitherto completely closed region extending far beyond the limits of the Earth and even of the solar system.” They were certainly correct. Today spectral analysis is an important part of astronomy research as well as terrestrial bound investigations. (English translations from The Chem Team.)

About Those Black Lines

Kirchhoff then began a series of experiments to try to understand the dark lines in the solar spectrum. His basic process was to pass the solar spectrum through a flame that came from a burning element. He directed light from the sun through a sodium flame and noticed some interesting results.

The real breakthrough came when he passed the light through a lithium flame. The normal solar light had no dark lines corresponding the emission lines of lithium. Yet, after sunlight had passed through the lithium, it had dark lines that corresponded to the emission spectrum of lithium.

Even then the process of getting to the explanation took a while. Eventually Kirchhoff came to the conclusion that the lithium was absorbing some of the solar spectrum and reemitting in directions different from the one that the sunlight was travelling. This result led to the conclusion that sunlight was passing through gases before it reached the Earth. The sunlight started as a full spectrum with no dark lines when it left the surface of the sun. As it passes through the atmosphere around the sun, the elements in that atmosphere absorb some of the light. That absorption leads to the dark lines which Fraunhofer had studied earlier in the 19th century.

With these studies Bunsen and Kirchhoff connected the dark lines and the bright lines. What was doing the absorption (atoms, molecules, something else) was not clearly understood. In fact, I have avoided using the word atom in this post because it was generally not part of the explanations given by Kirchhoff and Bunsen.

And then there is the question of the mechanism of emission and absorption. What happens during either emission or absorption of light by an element? We have another half a century before we will get to an answer of that question. In the meantime, we will look at progress toward understanding that atoms were involved.


What Are Things Made of? Depends on When You Ask.

Ancient Greeks Were the First to Hypothesize Atoms

The Poetry of Atoms

Atom Theory in Ancient India

Religion, Science Clashed over Atoms

Medieval Arabic Scholarship Might Have Preserved Scientific Knowledge

Rediscovering a Roman Poet – and Atom Theory – Centuries Later

Reconciling Atom Theory with Religion

Did Atom Theory Play a Role in Galileo’s Trouble with the Inquisition?

Did Gifted Scientist’s Belief in Atoms Led to His Obscurity?

Does Atom Theory Apply to the Earthly and the Divine?

A Duchess Inspired by Atoms

Separating Atoms from Atheism

Isaac Newton: 300 Years Ahead of His Time

Issac Newton and the Philosopher’s Stone

When Chemistry and Physics Split

Redefining Elements

Mme Lavoisier: Partner in Science, Partner in Life

With Atoms, Proportionality and Simplicity Rule

Despite Evidence of Atoms, 19th Century Skeptics Didn’t Budge

Mission of the First International Scientific Conference: Clear up Confusion

Rivalry over the First Periodic Table

The Puzzle of Dark Lines amid Rainbow Colors

Dean Zollman is university distinguished professor of physics at Kansas State University where he has been a faculty member for more than 40 years. During his career he has received four major awards — the American Association of Physics Teachers’ Oersted Medal (2014), the National Science Foundation Director’s Award for Distinguished Teacher Scholars (2004), the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching Doctoral University Professor of the Year (1996), and AAPT’s Robert A. Millikan Medal (1995). His present research concentrates on the teaching and learning of physics and on science teacher preparation.

A Made-up Story to Reveal Some Truth


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One criticism of historical fiction is that we novelists make stuff up. Yes, we do. We call it fiction for a reason.

That criticism assumes that history tells us everything. It doesn’t. Not by a long shot. While I am grateful for primary sources, their authors did not hesitate to omit events that made the boss look bad or twist the truth to make the boss look good.

I am fascinated by the history of the early Middle Ages, the time period for my novels, but no primary source will tell you what it was like for an ordinary pagan family in Saxony to watch a sacred monument be destroyed. Nor will it say what it was like for a woman and her children to lose the freedom they took for granted.

See my guest post on Royalty Free Fiction for more about why I decided that the best way to learn about an ordinary early medieval family was to make one up.


The Women’s Work of Medieval Midwifery


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If you were an expectant mother in the Middle Ages, you did not want a doctor to help you with the delivery. Childbirth was a part of life, not medicine, and to help you through labor, you wanted a midwife, who would tend to your health and the baby’s spiritual needs, if necessary.

For more about the medieval midwife’s unique place in her society, read my guest post on Grace Elliot’s Fall in Love with History.

Birth of Catherine of Siena

A 15th century illustration of the birth of Catherine of Siena (public domain image via Wikimedia Commons).

Not Damsels in Distress Awaiting Rescue


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The role and status of women is one of the most surprising elements of early medieval times. Arranged marriages, child brides, and wife-beating as a right made this era less than ideal, but women were not merely victims. They contributed to their society and even tried to influence events around them.

See Regina Jeffers’s blog for why I argue that calling all medieval women chattel grossly oversimplifies their reality.

19th century illustration of court ladies

From Braun and Schneider’s 19th century History of Costume (public domain image)

Consequences of Rushed Conversions


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Believing herself abandoned by her gods, Leova, the heroine of The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar, agrees to be baptized knowing little about Christianity. A few hours later, she and her children make their vows and have water poured on their heads.

Some critique partners questioned whether the ritual was so hasty. To paraphrase, they wondered if she would have taken classes first. Probably not, and there are letters from someone wanting the Christian mission to succeed to prove it. After reading Alcuin’s letter in Charlemagne: Translated Sources by P.D. King, I am convinced that the baptism in early medieval Saxony was indeed rushed and with disastrous consequences.

See English Historical Fiction Authors for more about the insight Alcuin’s letter provide.

A scene of the Saxons' baptisms

A scene of the Saxons’ baptisms (public domain image via Wikimedia Commons)

Why I Can’t Resist Writing about the Days of Charlemagne


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When I sat down to write my first novel, The Cross and the Dragon, I had only heard of Charlemagne in middle school. I suspect my experience is not unique, and that’s a pity.

The Carolingian era is a fascinating time where cultures and religions clashed and where the king’s decisions about his personal life had far-reaching consequences. See Judith Arnopp’s blog for a sampling of why I’m hooked on the history enough to write a second book, The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar, and get started on a third.

A 13th century illustration of a war between Charlemagne's Franks and the Saxons

A 13th century illustration of a war between Charlemagne’s Franks and the Saxons (public domain image via Wikimedia Commons).


What Was the Irminsul? Good Question.


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The Irminsul, a historic pillar sacred to the Continental Saxon peoples, presents a dilemma for a historical novelist. We know only one other thing about it: Charlemagne ordered its destruction in 772.

Was it made of wood or stone, or was it a tree? Where was it?

See Jester Harley’s Manuscript Page for how I approached this monument in The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar.

An 1880 mural of the Irminsul’s destruction by Hermann Wislicenus

An 1880 mural of the Irminsul’s destruction by Hermann Wislicenus (public domain image via Wikimedia Commons)

Why You Should Listen to Your Characters


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When I first started writing The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar, I thought Leova and her husband, Derwine, would have a common medieval marriage: the wife feels lucky her husband doesn’t beat her up, and the husband feels lucky because he is certain he is the father of his wife’s children. My characters, however, decided differently: they deeply love each other. Visit Samantha Holt’s blog to learn why my characters were right.



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