• Mary Ellen Johnson

I liken writers to house painters... in the sense that most of us, including me, think we can paint a house or at the very least, a room. How hard can it be? Buy a five gallon can of Sherwin Williams, a couple of brushes, tape up the trim (or not, as in my case) and voila! That's all there is to it! After many years of painting--dumping a half gallon paint can on bedroom carpeting, falling off a ladder, failing to properly tape trim (or not paint trim), getting more paint on my face and clothes than on the wall, I believe painting should be left to the experts. Anybody may be able to paint but only experts can do it well.

Which is the way I feel about writing.

"I can write my name...I can write a sentence...I wrote essays in college....I've always wanted to write... therefore I am qualified to write a book. "


Writing is a skill, just like painting, just like anything else. Some of us have a natural talent, but regardless it takes YEARS of practice to be a decent writer. Plumbers, electricians, carpenters serve apprenticeships. Yet way too many people think they can throw together a bunch of words and create a best seller. No you, can't. You can't even create a competent book.

The upside of indie publishing is that good writers have an opportunity to be read without having to beg at the door of traditional publishers. The downside is that anyone can string together some words, format, and throw their piece of dreck on Amazon.

Because I subscribe to Kindle Unlimited i get both. But, dear god in heaven, so much of the stuff is unreadable. (There are some best selling authors who don't know the basics of good writing or story telling, but in that case, what do I know? I'm a barely seller. )

I used to get really frustrated when editors and/or agents would say they could read a page and know whether a ms. is publishable. Now I know...they're right. Sometimes a paragraph will do it. It's more difficult to read a ms. by a talented author because you'll have to figure out things like plot fails, weak characterization, etc. That writer knows his or her craft, but may need some guidance. (And all too often traditional publishing houses won't offer that.) But the amateurs??? There as easily recognizable as the half gallon of brown paint I dumped on our red shag carpeting so many years ago.

There's a reason I now hire professional painters. And why I've spent a lifetime working to become at least marginally proficient at the craft of writing.

What would these gargoyles have looked like if stone masons had the medieval equivalent of Kindle? Just grab a hammer and chisel and start flailing!!

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  • Mary Ellen Johnson

Lots of things bug me. The following is simply first on my list today.

Quit judging historical figures by contemporary standards!!

Hopefully, we have evolved since even twenty years ago (sexual harassment, treatment of blacks, attitudes toward LGBTs, medical treatments etc.. Just as we've devolved in other areas: Pensions! Retirement! Unions! Middle Class!)

The point being, for us to condemn our ancestors on the basis of today's mores is not only unjust, it's ignorant.

Columbus did terrible things to the Native Americans. By the standards of his day, pretty much the norm.

In the Middle Ages, women could be beaten until they were bathed in their own blood before the courts might step in. Few, if any females, (except in Historical Romances) ever said, "How barbaric! I must march in the streets to protest!"

The church sold indulgences that could get us into heaven and pray disease out of us. (Oh, that's right. We continue to have that today in evangelical circles and on the Christian Broadcast Network.)


Hangings, beheadings, hanging, drawing and quartering as punishment for those powerful figures who offended the king.

Jews poisoned wells, causing the Black Death.

Jews sacrificed and ate babies.

Jews had tails and emanated a terrible stench.

Doctors drilled holes in patients' heads to get rid of mental illness.

Richard the Lionheart played polo with the heads of his conquered enemies.

Blacks were three-fifths of a human being.

Every day in my research I come across examples that sometimes horrify me and sometimes amuse me but always interest me. Not up to me to make fun of them or say, "How stupid can these people be?"

They understood their world through the knowledge available at the time.

Someday things we take for granted will no doubt be looked upon as laughable or scandalous.

Such as:

Understanding of many diseases, as well as mental illness. And how best to treat them.

Some of our economic systems, such as capitalism.

Free markets.

Certain religious practices and beliefs.

I could go on and on and piss off all of those who will scour my writings to discern my political leanings so they can foam at the mouth. (Don't bother. Just read Eugene Debs, Upton Sinclair and Clarence Darrow and you've pretty much pegged me.)

Bottom line is we, like our ancestors, are products of our time. There are very few Leonardo da Vincis out there who straddle the centuries.

So, just as it would be nice if future generations would study us with objectivity, a knowledge of history, and--dare I ask--compassion, it would be nice if we could approach our ancestors the same way.

And we thought our ancestors were barbarians!

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  • Mary Ellen Johnson

Updated: Aug 10, 2018

Don't even bother telling me that there is nothing wrong with homosexuality, on and on. I understand all of that...and I am still GREATLY offended when I read that the Lionheart preferred having sex with his own gender. Why??? Because there is very little proof of that. Real historians largely come down on the side that he was heterosexual. The alternate possibility was never even considered until mid-twentieth century. We all like to come up with something new to write about, don't we?

Well, thanks also to A LION IN WINTER--an otherwise great film--lots of people snicker about this great warrior's sexual proclivities. (Is there something particularly satisfying about proclaiming that macho men aren't so stereotypically macho after all?) Not so!!

Another pet peeve of mine is decoding our ancestors' actions on the basis of our own. One of the proofs that Richard was gay was he only allowed men into his coronation celebrations. (Oh, my God, a homosexual orgy!! What other explanation could there be?) Well, women were never allowed into those celebrations. Another that he and Phillip of France slept in the same bed. Yeah, sharing a bed--even with strangers when traveling--was commonplace. And when Richard's father lamented the pair's great love for each other he was talking in political terms. I could go on and on but don't need to because you can google. Even Sharon Kay Penman, an excellent researcher and historical novelist, regrets she originally portrayed Richard as gay.

There are many things that can be said about the Lionheart, some of them very unflattering. He was a great soldier--by the standards of the day, a barbarian by ours--and a pretty crappy king. What is indisputable about Richard I is that, like most of us, he was a very complex human being.

Had I been female and living in the Lionheart's court, I would have probably found him irresistible. Had I been a male soldier, I would have loyally followed him into hell--in this case the Holy Land. That's just the kind of heterosexual man he was.

Much later portrait of Richard the Lionheart. Most likely no resemblance whatsoever.

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