Apprenticeships have existed since medieval times. In The Fifth Knight, my medieval thriller, I have a group of apprentice boys forming a mob to pursue my hero and heroine through the streets of Knaresborough.
Thanks to reality TV shows, everybody today knows what an apprentice is. Not usually given to chasing people for reward, but more commonly someone who learns from their skilled master, who emulates them, who wants to be like them one day. Apprentices traditionally weren’t paid, or were paid very little, which is still the case for many modern apprenticeships. It’s a testimony to its effectiveness as a system that it has still survived. After all, many other medieval occupations didn’t.
Arming Squire? Well, most 21st century dwellers don’t wear plate armour on a regular basis. Probably just as well. The Arming Squire’s job was ok when putting said armour on. Yes, there could be up to twenty-four separate pieces of a full suit. Yes, they weighed up to 60 pounds. But the squire was also responsible for taking it all off again. And then cleaning it. Now, a medieval knight’s armour fresh from the battlefield will be covered with all manner of dirt: mud, horse manure, the blood of his enemies. A challenge for the squire, indeed. But remember there is also the cleaning of the inside of the armour. Armour that a knight would have been in for many, many hours. The sweat of battle would have been the easy part. The difficult part related to the fact that a suit of plate armour didn’t have any means for the knight answer a call of nature, no matter how loud (and one suspects in the heat of battle, it would be very loud) that call might be. Happily, the squire would have had his cleaning materials at his disposal: a scouring paste made of sand or grit, vinegar and urine.
Leech Collecting (or at least as it was performed in medieval times) has also become an extinct occupation. Leeches were central to medieval medicine due to the practice of blood-letting. Leech gatherers did it the hard way. They would wade into marshes and wait for the leeches living in there to latch onto their bare skin. The more they could collect the better. And of course by their very nature, leech wounds continue to bleed for several hours. There was also a very high risk of infection.
So to return to the far less messy subject of apprenticeships. I too have served an apprenticeship in working to achieve my goal of publication, as I believe all writers have to in learning their craft. None of us starts off fully formed and able to produce a competent novel. For me, my apprenticeship was two-fold: a lot (an awful lot) of practice, and membership of a wonderful organisation called Romance Writers of America. Now, there’s a lot of other great writers organisations out there but for me, RWA was the master. A master that insists on its apprentices getting their craft right, starting with the basics. Every RWA chapter runs classes, hosts contests. A novice writer thinks ‘Great, I’ll enter a contest, get my work in front of an editor or an agent in the final round. Shouldn’t be too hard.’ But oh, those score sheets. Section after section. Grammar. Spelling. Punctuation. Formatting. Character Development. Character Goals, Motivations. Conflict. Plot. Pacing. Relationships. And for specialist sub-genres, like historical romance, there’s accuracy, time and place. And so on and so on.
Yes, I entered a contest. Or several. Guess what? I didn’t final. I didn’t have most of the above to a high enough standard. It would have been easy to have rejected those scores and helpful, constructive comments provided by those anonymous RWA judges. But they were right. My writing wasn’t good enough. Plain and simple. And what those judges were doing, being the journeymen (or more correctly, women) to my apprentice. I, like so many novice writers, was thinking I could carve a replica of Saint Paul’s Cathedral or the Eiffel Tower, when the truth was I couldn’t even hold a plane the right way up. My writing was still a regular block of wood: there, but completely without form or shape.
Instead of rejecting those judges opinions, I took them on board. Took on-line classes with RWA. Read Romance Writers Report every month, with all its articles on every aspect of writing and getting published. I got critique partners through RWA. And I wrote and wrote and wrote.
I got better. Slowly. There were hiccups along the way, like the critique partner who had a venomous dislike of the word ‘was’ and would return any pages immediately that contained it. She didn’t last long. Neither did the writer who had her heroine armed to the teeth before she left her house every morning (this was a contemporary romance), and who like to frequent a bar that ‘smelled of socks and vomit.’ That was usually the prelude to brutal hand-to-hand, or knife-to-guts combat. Interesting stuff, but perhaps not even romantic elements.
In time, I graduated to becoming a contest judge myself. This was a huge privilege and I tried to provide the helpful (but honest) feedback I had received. There was also the unforgettable incident of what I will only refer to as the Saga of the Necrophilia Entry. I will say no more, except to say necrophilia is NOT a sub-genre of romance.
Finalling in my first contest was a huge motivator. Unfortunately, the final round judge was an editor, who far from providing any encouragement, dismissed my entry as ‘generic’ (fair enough), before seizing on the use of the word ‘nightcap’, as in drink. She declared, ‘Nobody has used that word in this country since Carey Grant, and he’s been dead a long time.’ Eh? I regret to say that her feedback has left me with a sort of limited Tourette’s. Today, whenever I’m watching a modern movie or TV and someone says That Word, my reaction is swift and immediate. ‘SEE? Nightcap! They said it! SEE?’ Trouble is, I don’t even need someone else sat in the room with me to hear me say it. Emotional scarring aside, contest finals and final round feedback were invaluable. The wins added to my credentials and the editor and agent feedback helped so much.
Those blocks of wood that were my early attempts at novel writing gradually took shape. I worked on them until they fit to be put up for sale, and somebody liked the look of one of them enough to buy it.
Am I still an apprentice? Probably not. Is there still a ton I have to learn? Definitely, which is why I’m still a proud member of RWA. And thankful every day that I don’t have to clean out armour or harvest leeches.
Note: The Fifth Knight can be found on Kindle Serials at The Fifth Knight. At this time, only US customers can purchase the serialized format. The book will be released in complete format by Thomas & Mercer in 2013.