Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day—the day for lovers—and the least popular day of the year for single folks whose lack of a partner becomes acutely apparent.
For a mystery writer, the day offers all sorts of inspiration. Love or lost love is, after all, one of the prime motivators for murder-most-foul. What mystery writer hasn’t used it a time or two—at least as a red herring?
But even more interesting to this mystery writer is the origin of St. Valentine’s Day. While it is ostensibly the feast day for a Roman Catholic saint named Valentine who died on February 14th, the record is not so clear on exactly who, why, or even when a man named Valentine became the patron saint of love, young people, and happy marriages.
Legend holds that St. Valentine died around 269 CE. This was well before the Edict of Milan legalized the Christian church in 313, so records from that time are spotty at best. The Christian church was still being persecuted by Rome and much of what we know of its early history comes from oral tradition rather than contemporaneous records. So, in mystery writers’ terms, we don’t really know for sure whodunnit!
According to history.com, there are at least two viable candidates for the honor of being the mortal who became St. Valentine. They lived around the same time—the reign of Emperor Claudius II of Rome (214-270 CE). One was a simple priest. The other was the Bishop of Terni, Narnia, and Amelia. Even the church isn’t 100% sure which it was.
Stories abound about the saint and are accepted as truth—or truth adjacent—for the purposes of celebrating the feast day.
The official St. Valentine, according to the Vatican (catholic.org), died in 269 CE. He was an Italian priest (or bishop?) who, according to legend, proved the power of Christ by restoring the sight of the blind daughter of a judge (or jailer?) who had imprisoned him. As a result, Valentine was awarded his freedom. But it wasn’t long before Valentine was again arrested. His crime? Converting people, marrying couples (starting to see the connection to love and happy marriages?), and assisting Christians being persecuted by Rome. His motive for marrying couples might have been less about romance and more about pragmatism. Apparently, once married, men were excused from going to war. That’s a pretty big incentive.
He went too far when he tried to convert Emperor Claudius II, who ordered Valentine to renounce his faith or be put to death. He chose the latter and the death sentence was carried out in 269 CE (or perhaps 270, or 273, or 280 . . .) He is believed to have been buried on the Via Flaminia north of Rome, perhaps leaving a note behind for the girl whose blindness he cured, signed “Your Valentine.” Hmmm. Sound familiar?
Both the bishop and the priest are said to have performed similar miracles, met similar fates, died at a similar time, and buried at a similar place. No wonder we’re confused. Some speculate that the priest and the bishop were, in fact, one and the same.
But wait. Wikipedia tells us that there is at least one more candidate—another martyr who died on the same day in Africa. Not much else is known about this Valentine, but since they all are recorded as dying on February 14, who’s to say which is the St. Valentine?
But if we can’t be certain of which Valentine it was, or what year he died, how can we know that he died on February 14th?
As with other Christian holidays, St. Valentine’s day might have been placed in mid-February to help ease pagans’ transition to Christianity, supplanting the Roman Festival of Lupercalia which, according to thoughtco, was celebrated on February 13-15, and was said to purify the City of Rome and usher in a time of health and fertility.
Another theory is that since birds mate in mid-February, the patron saint of lovers feast day was placed then. Tennyson said it best in “Locksley Hall”: In the spring, a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.
The truth about Valentine will never be settled. When, in 496 CE, Pope Gelasius I first included Valentine’s name among those of other saints, he admitted the list was of people whose acts (miracles? good works? martyrdom?) were “known only to God.” No new evidence has turned up since to settle the question.
In 1969, the Roman Catholic church, perhaps due to this ambiguity, ceased requiring celebration of Valentine’s feast day, but it still counts him among the saints.
Whoever he was in life, St. Valentine is known, not only as the patron saint of love, happy marriages, and young people, but also of engaged couples, beekeepers, epilepsy, fainting, greetings, travelers, and plague (yikes!). Only a few of these mesh with our current, secular view of Valentine’s Day, but with selective editing, florists, card companies, and chocolatiers have ample excuse to make the most of this bright spot in the winter calendar.
So, who will be your Valentine? Let’s hope they are not shrouded in as much mystery as St. Valentine!
The Bethlehem Writers Group, LLC (BWG), founded in 2006, is a community of mutually supportive, fiction and nonfiction authors based in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The members are as different from each other as their stories, spanning a range of genres including: children’s, fantasy, humor, inspiration, literary, memoir, mystery, paranormal, romance, science fiction, women’s fiction, and young adult.
BWG has published five anthologies. Each anthology has an overall theme—broadly interpreted—but includes a variety of genres, and all but the first anthology include stories from the winner(s) of The Bethlehem Writers Short Story Award. Their first anthology, A Christmas Sampler: Sweet, Funny, and Strange Holiday Tales (2009), won two Next Generation Indie Book Awards: Best Anthology and Best Short Fiction.
Besides anthologies and yearly writing contests, the group publishes a quarterly literary journal, The Bethlehem Writers Roundtable, and hosts twice monthly writing workshops and a critique groups for local members. You can see the schedule of BWG meetings and events, including author signings here.
BWG is working on their sixth anthology, Fur, Feathers, & Scales: Sweet, Funny, and Strange Animal Tales.
In connection with this anthology, they are hosting The Bethlehem Writers 2020 Short Story Award.
The 2020 Short Story Award opened on January 1, 2020. The theme will be Animal Stories, broadly interpreted. Stories of 2,000 words or fewer about WILD ANIMALS, PETS, or IMAGINARY BEASTS will be welcome (so long as an animal is an important character or element of the story).
The winner will receive $200 and may be offered publication in the above mentioned upcoming anthology. The 2020 Guest Judge is Edgar Award winning and NYT best-selling author Peter Abrahams/Spenser Quinn.
Bethlehem Writers Roundtable seek animal stories (broadly interpreted) of 2000 words or fewer.
First Place winner will be considered for publication in their newest “Sweet, Funny, and Strange” anthology:
Fur, Feathers, & Scales: Sweet, Funny, and Strange Animal Tales
The latest of their “Sweet, Funny, and Strange” Anthologies
Abrahams was born in Boston, graduated from Williams College, and lives on Cape Cod.
You read an interview of Mr. Abrahams here.
Previous BWR Short Story Award Judges
Multi-award winning Jerome W. McFadden’s has had forty short stories published over the past ten years in a wide magazines, e-zines, and a dozen anthologies. He efforts have won him several national awards and writing contests, receiving a National Bullet Award for the Best Crime fiction on appear on the web in June 2011. His short stories have been read on stage by the Liar’s League in Hong Kong and the Liar’s League in London.
After receiving his B.A. from the University of Missouri, he spent two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Casablanca, Morocco. Following his MBA from the Thunderbird Graduate School of Global Management (Arizona State University). He continued his peripatetic ways with corporate assignments in Houston, Istanbul, Paris, San Francisco, and Singapore, spending his spare time writing free-lance articles for American and newspapers and magazines. He morphed from journalism to short fiction in 2009. He now resides in Bethlehem, Pa. and is an active member of the Bethlehem Writers Group. His collection of 26 short stories, Off The Rails, A Collection of Weird, Wicked, & Wacky Stories, appeared in November, 2019.
Every word in a short story matters. Time and space are limited. You cannot afford to waste a page or two describing the weather, building the setting, or giving the genealogy of your hero/heroine. You need to get to the guts of the action quickly, pulling the reader in with the first paragraph. By the end of the first page the reader should be aware of the famous 5 W’s of journalism: Who, where, when, what, with why possibly coming later.
Short stories follow only one trajectory — one arc — concerning one character (or a small group of characters) traveling through one primary crisis or concern. The crisis or concern is in fact one shattering moment in that person’s (or group’s) life that he/she must work through, successfully or unsuccessfully. Note: That shattering moment does not need to be violent. It could be emotional, psychological, mental, or spiritual, or other. But it needs to be challenging. *
Characters must be construct with complexity, credibility, and emotion—in as little as a sentence or two. The writer must show character development while actively moving through the story’s narrative. You do not have time or space for the big old info dump. Instead, the writer needs to use clever dialogue, interactions, short flashbacks, and sharp imagery to develop the story’s characters.
You are limited to a small cast of characters. A full cast might consist of only one or two characters. Any character you decide to introduce must bring something crucial to the story – or be eliminated. Bringing in a characters for “cuteness” or for “color” or just because you like the quirky character in your head, is wasting precious words and precious space in your story. A good rule: Any character that does not bring in two vital elements into the story needs to be eliminated forthwith.
Recognize the descriptions and dialogues that slowing the story down, as well those that are those that are moving the story along. You must identify the best place to start, where to put the opening scene that hooks the reader, then maintain that hook to continue to pull the reader through the rest of the story.
Short stories leave no time for easing into things (long descriptions, banal conversations, interesting but boring backstory, wild personal tangents). Short stories are just that—Short —but they must always pack a punch. This may be the ultimate skill to be learned from short story writing: Trim the fat. My favorite writing “rule” comes from the legendary writer Elmore Lenonard, ‘Leave out the parts that the readers skip.”
The stronger the better. And a great twist at the ending helps make the story memorable
An added note: The tools and skill you pick up from writing short stories are assets that can and probably should be used in your novel writing.
*This “shattering moment” is described lovingly and in full detail in Chapter 3 – The Big Key in James Scott Bell’s wonderful book How to Write Short Stories And Use Them to Further Your Writing Career.
BWG member, Christopher D. Ochs is our From a Cabin in the Wood’s author. We’re sure you will enjoy his post “Jack of All Trades?”
Christopher D. Ochs’ foray into writing began with his epic fantasy Pindlebryth of Lenland: The Five Artifacts, recommended by US Review of Books. Several of his short stories have been published in the Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group and Bethlehem Writers Group anthologies and websites. His latest work is a collection of mirthful macabre short stories If I Can’t Sleep, You Can’t Sleep.
His current literary projects include: short stories in Firebringer Press’ next entry in their Eternity anthology series, an e-book prequel novella for Pindlebryth of Lenland, a YA speculative fiction novel My Friend Jackson, and of course, the second novel of the Pindlebryth saga.
Chris has too many interests outside of writing for his own good. With previous careers in physics, mathematics, electrical engineering and software, and his incessant dabblings as a CGI animator, classical organist, voice talent on radio, DVD and anime conventions, it’s a wonder he can remember to pay the dog and feed his bills. Wait, what?
Jack of All Trades?
I recently reflected over all the jobs in my lifetime from which I have received a paycheck. To the best of my recollection, they were:
During one particularly unsuccessful discussion with an HR individual, she commented, “Wow, you really are unfocused!” However, I look at it differently. I can truthfully say that I have been blessed, in that every job (after I completed college) has been a profession that I chose to work, and loved doing. That is not to say that some positions had their share of difficulties. There have been occasional instances of professional backstabbing and other malfeasance, plentiful examples of managerial incompetence, and so on. The Peter Principle is alive and well, let me assure you! Despite these workaday frustrations, my work involved in one facet or another one or more intellectual discipline I loved: physics, math, music, computers, and language.
Late in my hopscotch of professions, I began to despair. I felt that I had become the proverbial “Jack of All Trades, and Master of None.” A friend and co-worker made an observation that helped me out of my doldrums immensely. He said, “Your first degree was in physics, right? That means you have the discipline to figure out how anything works.” I’ve found that holds true, but only to a point. It does not help much in my latest choice of vocations, namely writing. Mathematical maxims and the comfort of the immutable laws of physics are notoriously absent.
Somerset Maugham’s (in)famous maxim states, “There are three rules to writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” How true! To further my confusion, several writing authorities have posited, “Once you know the rules, you know when you may break them.” To borrow a metaphor from “Dungeons & Dragons,” I often feel like a Lawful Good paladin living in a Chaotic Neutral world.
However, I’ve discovered my professional wanderlust has still managed to come to my rescue. My wide experience of work has afforded me the chance to rub elbows with people from all walks of life: from blue collar to white collar, from ditch digger to Nobel prize winner, from unrepentant sinner to bishop. My choices have allowed me to make friends with citizens of all six populated continents.
As a writer, this “Jack-of-All-Trades” life path has afforded me a rich smorgasbord of characters, experiences and observation that I may draw on.
More often than not, we writers are a solitary bunch. I’m guilty as charged as well, as I am not as gregarious as everything above might imply. We huddle in our writing rooms, happy with our keyboard and coffee (or tea). It can become isolating, and that has its own dangers, when we spend too much time in our own head. We are often told to “write what you know,” but if you limit your experiences to your writing shed, it can limit one’s scope. And of course, if you can’t get out and about as much as you’d like, just read the memoirs of other people’s experiences.
So get out. Leap into that new job you’ve been dreaming about. The unemployment rate has never been better, after all. Try a new experience. Learn a new language or craft at your local high school adult program, learn a musical instrument, join a new group, be it a painting klatch or mountaineering club. Volunteer at a food bank or museum. Broaden your experience, and if you remain open and observant, I guarantee you’ll never run out of ideas to inspire your writing.
I hear it’s good for staving off Alzheimer’s as well…
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