Friday, December 23, 2011

Call it

I'm always a sucker for sites that give me help finding names for characters no matter where they find themselves. So, this site looks like it will be very useful. It's not quite as easy to get around as it appears but there are gems in the rubble.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Fussy soup

ChallahImage via WikipediaIn my youth I was very careful to avoid being fussy in my actions and gestures. Fussy, in my mental schema, was the opposite of cool. Those who were cool got things done with a minimum of effort and a swoosh of style. Those who fuss take time and are painstaking about what they do. They never take off the training wheels nor trust their feet enough to try the high wire.

There have been times when the difference between cool and fussy have struck me a weltering blow, particularly while an undergraduate. There were people who knew how to sit in the bar, drink a pint and smoke a cigarette and were cool doing it. Many others, me included, were not so sophisticated but I watched, envious, and learned.

In my first year at Uni I lived in on-campus flats and shared a corridor with about 12 other freshers. During the first week we were all asked to make the place more friendly by writing our names on a card and sticking it on our door.

I fretted over the best way to do that and the over-analysis, fussiness, robbed me of any chance of looking spontaneous or cool. In the end I just used an index card with my name written in black marker. In the dim corridor it looked a bit shrill.

A guy down the hall demonstrated the cool way. His card was a torn off corner off a notebook with his name scrawled across it and thumbed to the door with a blob of blue-tac. The paper wasn't even white. It looked like he had gone "Oh, yeah. That." Then done it and moved on. Too cool for school.

For some reason that memory occurred to me this week while I was eating soup. God knows why. With this soup I had a hunk of bread and I wondered, in a very idle moment, what would be the coolest way to butter the bread. Was there a way to hold the knife, to scoop up the butter on the knife and apply it to the bread that was better than any other? I tried a few different ways but most left me wearing the butter rather than eating it. Should I dab the bread in the butter and do away with the knife? Should I use a flick knife?

And then I realised how pointless that debate was. Why? Because cool people do not eat soup. That's why.
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Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Worship that

Gladiators from the Zliten mosaic.Image via WikipediaThe idea of a world without Christianity has really got to me (gladiators in Elizabethan London!) and I've been thinking about alternatives that are equally long-lasting religions.

Shinto is a good candidate because it has persisted, has no scripture and is not based around any messianic figure. It is about man's essential goodness, emphasises ritual and is about appeasing spirits. It strikes me as a good model for those pagan religions that might be prevalent in a world without Christ. It's pretty local too so doesn't need a Vatican equivalent handing down bulls.

Then there is Hinduism, it too lacks scripture, has no single founder and no common teachings. It's a way of life rather than a didactic religion. It also has multiple deities at its head. Again a good model for what might have been. I can also consider Taoism, Buddhism and Zoroastrianism. And those are just the ones that have survived until today.

The more I read about Christianity the more I realise that the reason it succeeded way back when was not just because of the hope it gave the down-trodden but because it co-opted so many existing practices. Being a Christian meant doing a lot of what you always did but it got a new name and you did it in a different place.

A case could be made for Christianity having a civilising influence in that it tempted people to stop going to war. But there were lots of other similar influences around then too. The example of Rome helped in that life got better for a lot of people under its rule. And a lot of people were dead because of it but that does go with the territory. And it has to be said bloodshed did not end when Christianity was being widely practiced.

It was a force for disruption too, all those messianic warlords with the light of heaven blinding them and slaughtering those who refused to cleave to what they see as a loving God. Without those holy wars, what would Europe have looked like?
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Friday, October 21, 2011

A fresh start

Aurelian, personification of Sol, defeats the ...Image via WikipediaSo, why did Christianity become so popular? It wasn't particularly quick - I've read suggestions that it became the dominant religiion within the Roman empire within 400 years. I was going to say that change happens fast when you consider that it had to over-turn other religions but the point about it is that it didn't. A lot of Christian liturgy, holidays and so on were nicked from earlier faiths.

However, that leaves open the question of why it did prosper. This seems a good explanation and suggests the success was down to the hard work of Paul of Tarsus who changed it to make it more appealing. It also says that it proved popular psychologically because it coupled
a coherent and attractive picture of how the world worked with a commonsensical moral code.
The Christian idea of the afterlife was much more attractive than that of other religions and, for that reason, appealed to those who had a crappy time in this life. Their reward, so palpably absent from their day to day existence, would become apparent once they were dead. Plus it also gave people a place in the Universe and the illusion of control over their lives.

The Christian God was also a nicer guy than those old pagan deities. The older faiths were all about anger and punishment, plus they were very parochial whereas God was about forgiveness and was universal. And, in Christ, there was an explicit connection to humanity.

Christians were also heavily persecuted during the early days. The Roman games were all about punishing Christians as well as lots of other enemies of Rome. Some Emperors tried to stamp it out by burning books, destroying churches and killing worshippers.

There were alternatives to that early Christianity too. Notably Mithra and the Sol Invictus cult of Rome. Plus there were a lot of mystery cults that disappeared without a trace. Around Europe there were a lot of Pagan religions that were steam-rollered by Rome and then Christianity came along to fill the void in their wake. More so when Christianity became the dominant religion of the Empire.Enhanced by Zemanta

Thursday, October 13, 2011

By Toutatis

Thor iPad wallpaperImage by xploitme via FlickrThis discussion on Reddit (I know, I know) got me thinking. I'm aware that many parts of the early church steal and edit earlier beliefs and that the editorial conference for the Bible was quite fraught, but that question about about older gods really made me wonder.

How different would beliefs be if Christianity had not emerged at all? What did Romans believe? It looks like the established achievement metric of belief = favours was well established but beyond that there is huge divergence.

The most exciting part of the discussion, and the reason Reddit continues to delight, was the note that part of the reason Christianity was seen as a threat was because it clashed with many aspects of Roman life. For Romans, as with many other cultures, beliefs define what is permissible. The moral teachings of Christ means that some Roman staples (gladiators, astrology, slavery) were incompatible with a Christian way of life. Given that worship of Roman gods was rigorously enforced you can see how that might be seen as troubling.

It'd be interesting to wonder what kind of society we would have now if Christianity had been snuffed out and the Roman way of life stayed dominant. There would be clashes with indigent cultures around Europe but I'd bet that the various tribes wouldn't be preaching tolerance and understanding.

The rot seems to have set in when Constantine the Great became Emperor. As the first explicitly Christian emperor he preached religious tolerance which literally forced people to live a different way. A vision led to Constantine's conversion, but he was such a canny politician that there may be something else pointing him that way.

I guess the big question is how did Christianity come to pose such a threat? Then there are subsidiary questions about how history would be different if Christianity was missing. The Holy Roman Empire might be a bit different for a start.
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Friday, October 07, 2011

Human overhaul

This is a fabulous discussion of what needs to change in the human body to make it better. It also makes me love the net all over again as I've been wondering about what would need doing and here are all the answers in a handy format for me to work with.

The true future

If we ever meet outer space aliens, us puny humans are going to be at such a disadvantage because our physiology betrays us in so many ways. Take lying.
1967 Soviet Union 16 kopeks stamp. Space scien...Image via Wikipedia
For a start the alien super creatures might use their super space technology, some of which brought them across the Universe to our doorstep, to zap us with a magnetic pulse which makes it impossible for us to lie.

And then there are the many ways that we betray ourselves when we lie - this claims there are seven. I'd guess that the super space technology could analyse most of those in time to information the slug-faced squid given the job of first contact that the humans are trying to pull a fast one.

There approach might be even sneakier, in that they might try to exploit our known cognitive biases so they get the outcome they want. Or even spritz us with oestrogen to skew our responses.

They should also be able to look deeper into the blood flow under our skin to spot more tell-tales. Heavens, we are already on the way to being able to do this via phone so it'll doubtless be a breeze when we are in the ante-room of the bridge on an interplanetary craft.

Of course, this does pre-suppose that we will want to lie to the alien visitors. Or that they will expect us to and will want a way to spot it. Who knows, perhaps alien peoples will, for a while, prefer to do business with us Earthians because we are so transparent and have no way to defend ourselves against such subtle probing.

It might be the case that they constantly expose our lies for what they are and gradually force us to be truthful all the time. Though I'm not sure what penalties they could impose if we do not choose to believe them.

It does also make me wonder about lies. I tell lies all the time to my kids, even my wife but they are not bad lies. They are to spare them information that would spoil things (Birthdays! Christmas!) later on. With the kids I also conceal information for which they are not ready. But there can be lies that I don't know I'm telling. Information that is wrong but I think is right, in that case I'll have all the outward signs that I'm telling the truth but will actually be wrong. Has anyone tried this on religious zealots? Hmm.

I suppose that this might not only apply to aliens. Maybe this is the life we are all headed for in the future, where it gets harder and harder to tell an untruth. And the only way you can lie is to be ignorant.
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Monday, September 26, 2011

Putting the you in unique

This video of olympic beard wearer Robert Sapolsky talking about what makes humans unique plays to a lot of topics I've been thinking about recently.

Bert's top 10

As a follow up to an earlier post, here are Bertrand Russell's 10 commandments for liberals - in the old-fashioned sense of the word.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

You, you, you

I found this characterisation of the future deeply scary, if great fodder for a story. I can see a day when we all map our moods, or they are mapped for us, and we are prone to being sold stuff our bodies think we need.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Drive, he said

I'm noting this about traffic flows and how to improve them for a future, but brewing, story about cars, hobos and travelling.

Action stations

All I will ever need to know about the active and passive voice from the always wonderful Language Log. I just wish I could understand it.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

My three Rs...

New Running ShoesImage by Kim.Wood via Flickr...are reading, writing and running. I am a fool for books and cannot remember a time when I could not read. But it has taken having kids to really bring it home to me how much of a bibliophile I am. It frustrates me a little that my kids are not so gung ho on books as I was when I was their age. For a long time I did not understand why books did not have the same allure for them that they did for me. At the same time I'm jealous of all the discoveries they have yet to make and all the fabulous reading that is to come if they do turn out to be book worms.

The second is writing and I have done that throughout my life too. For a long time I've dabbled, written the odd story here and there and never done anything with them, occasionally got it together enough to send out the odd manuscript and novel proposal and then given up when the rejections came back.

For the past five years or so I have been trying to get more serious about it with a small amount of success. I think I've stuck with it so long this time because it is a lot easier to do. Sending a story out by e-mail or uploading it via a submission system is so much easier than printing out the manuscript, adding a cover letter, adding an SAE (and perhaps an IRC) putting it in an envelope, schlepping down to the post office, queuing , paying and waiting and waiting. Success, and rejection, come so much quicker in the internet age.

And now running has come back into my life. Again it has been something I have done on and off all my life. I even ran a half marathon a decade or so ago in a time that bestows no credit on me whatsoever. And I've taken it up again now. I'm glad that I have. Part of the reason I wanted to do it is because it seems to be the easiest form of exercise - I have feet and there are roads to run on everywhere. And I want to do it because I do not want to suddenly catch sight of myself and realise I am fat and 40+.

It turns out that there is an unforeseen and unremembered benefit of pounding the roads and it has a lot of parallels with writing. Both are (largely) solitary pursuits. But both benefit from the input of others. Both require commitment to get the most out of them and the benefits they bestow are measurable.

But perhaps the greatest parallel is found in the middle of a run. In the moments when it is easy and, more often, in the moments when your body begrudges each breath, when ankles creak and it is easier to quit and collapse than it is to keep going. That's when you earn your spurs as a runner, when you look for and find the courage to go on, when something shifts deep in the silt of your soul, you grit your teeth and get it done. When the time you clock would disgrace a tortoise but you count it as a victory because you took yourself on and won.

And then the rationalisations start. That you can't call it a victory because you could have gone faster in the first mile, and there was that section where you felt fine so you were really holding back, and you weren't breathing that hard when you stopped so you could have got more out of yourself.

I have similar thoughts about writing. Sometimes it is easy and the pages fly past like a picket fence, and sometimes it is just about getting your head down and getting it done. It is about finding the courage to go on even if afterwards no-one knows what it took, what it took out of you and what it gave back.

Story writing has its post-race rationalisation too. That it's not as good as it could be because you liked that passage and you've left it in when you should take it out. And the similes are weak because you didn't have the guts to let them flow and it didn't take your breath away so it doesn't really count and next time, next time, the crowd will get to their feet when you turn in the manuscript because you didn't put a foot wrong. I don't think that's a real possibility but I'm taking steps to get there.
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Friday, September 02, 2011

A diet of words

Stephen King's House in Bangor, MaineImage via WikipediaI have learned a lot about writing fiction in the last few years. Some of that learning has come about by reading a lot about the craft of writing fiction. Many of those articles, blogs and books trot out rules that beginning writers must follow if they are to tread the well-worn road to success.

Alongside "murder your darlings", "do not use adverbs" and "omit unnecessary words" go others such as Elmore Leonard's advice to never open a book with weather. There are a lot of rules and it would be impossible to follow them all as many of them are contradictory.

One rules I have kept most assiduously is to keep the text tight. The copy of Ken Rand's 10% Solution I own is heavily thumbed and I use it with every story to snip out a few hundred words and tighten up the places where the text is flabby. That formula of second draft = first draft - 10% is one that Stephen King follows as do many other writers.

I have also been rigorous in trying to show rather than tell as much as I can. The combination of the two has left my stories tighter and lacking the large hunks of internal dialogue I find in many of the short stories I review and read.

I am starting to wonder if I have gone too far. I suspect my day job does not help because in my professional life I write news stories for a large media organisation. I have been doing this for quite a long time. Most of the news stories I write are quite short. The words are short and so are the sentences. Brevity and news go hand in hand.

But fiction is not news. There are times when sentences in fiction can be short. Need to be short. And there are times when those sentences need to be lush and long, stretching out to evoke a mood or underscore the actions of a character. I have lost sight of that. I have re-read a couple of recent stories and they posses the virtue of brevity but lack emotional engagement and any information about internal states. My preference to show rather than tell (albeit imperfectly) has seen me cut those bits out.

I am going to stop doing that. I am done with strict adherence to those rules. I want to write longer sentences, tell readers what a character is thinking and be happy to have my prose show off and swish around. Many of my favourite writers are unashamedly prolix. They write long sentences that sometimes sag under the weight of the words they hold. They use difficult words (spatulate!) and show their love of language. Those are rules I'm happy to follow.
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Friday, August 05, 2011

Social work

This discussion continues to be absorbing, especially the part where Karl Schroeder asserts:
The *point* is to build methods of interaction that compensate, insofar as possible, for the biases, bad habits, ingrained social responses etc. that make certain kinds of decision-making difficult to scale.
He also mentions what some of those are, many of which I've not heard of before. I want to know more about Ashby's Law of Requisite Variety, the Erroneous Priorities Effect and SDD.
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Life lessons

All these quotes are taken from Bertrand Russell's "What I believe". I'm excerpting them Temple of Zeus in Athens at Athens.Image via Wikipediabecause they seem to encapsulate the view of many people in the early years of the 20th century, though they are also salted with his own particular views. Some are obvious, some hilarious and others may not be entirely relevant in a world where Cthulic entities have broken through but they are helping me get into the mindset of the times.

  • Both upward and downward, both in the large and in the small, science seems to be reaching limits.
  • Physical science is thus approaching the stage when it will be complete, and therefore uninteresting.
  • God and immortality, the central dogmas of the Christian religion, find no support in science.
  • If the world is controlled by God, and God can be moved by prayer, we acquire a share in omnipotence.
  • Happiness is non the less true happiness because it must come to an end, nor do though and love lose their value because they are not everlasting.
  • It is we who create value and our desires which confer value. In this realm we are kings, and we debase our kingship if we bow down to Nature. It is for us to determine the good life, not for Nature - not even for Nature personified as God.
  • The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge.
  • All moral rules must be tested by examining whether they tend to realise ends that we desire.
  • When I say that the morality of conduct is to be judged by its probable consequences, I mean that I desire to see approval given to behaviour likely to realise social purposes we desire, and disapproval to opposite behaviour.
  • Outside human desires there is no moral standard.
  • Current morality is a curious blend of utilitarianism and superstition, but the superstitious part has the stronger hold, as is natural, since superstition is the origin of moral rules.
  • Capitalists, militarists, and ecclesiastics co-operate in education, because all depend for their power upon the prevalence of emotionalism and the rarity of critical judgement.
  • We, who belong to great democracies, should find a more appropriate morality in free Athens than in despotic Imperial Rome.
  • The important point is that, in all that differentiates between a good life and a bad one, the world is a unity, and the men who pretends to live independently is a conscious or unconscious parasite.
  • And conscience is a most fallacious guide, since it consists of vague reminiscences of precepts heard in early youth, so that it is never wiser than its possessor's nurse or mother.
  • I do not wish to suggest that revolutions are never necessary, but I do wish to suggest that they are not short cuts to the millennium. There is no short cut to the good life, whether individual or social. To build up the good life, we must build up intelligence, self-control and sympathy.
  • It is in moments of panic that cruelty becomes most widespread and most atrocious. Reactionaries everywhere appeal to fear..., and the sole effect of their appeals is to increase the danger against which they wish to be protected.
  • If we are again to have progress, we must again be dominated by hope.
  • But courage in fighting is by no means the only form, nor perhaps even the most important. There is courage in facing poverty, courage in facing derision, courage in facing the hostility of one's own herd.
  • Life should not be too closely regulated or too methodical
  • Science can, if it chooses, enable our grandchildren to live the good life, by giving them knowledge, self-control, and characters productive of harmony rather than strife. At present it is teaching our children to kille ach other, because many men of science are willing to sacrifice the future of mankind to their own momentary prosperity. But this phase will pass when men have acquired the same domination over their own passions that they already have over the physical forces of the external world. Then at last we shall have won our freedom.
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Thursday, August 04, 2011

Sight seeing

Humans have made a world in which they are comfortable - especially when it comes to how we sense it. When we have robots living alongside us then perhaps we should make the world more hospitable to them too.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Look out

Some rigorous thought about the future in terms of energy and economic growth shows where the limits lie. Other people have been contemplating the future as well. I wonder what is actually going to happen? This collaborative book might be a sign of the direction we are headed.

Cover me

Searching for an unrelated topic and I came across the website of Chris Foss. I don't want to think about how many SF books I own that have his art on the cover. It gives me a real hankering for some good space opera.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Food caught

There is a lot more variety in these requests for a last meal than I thought there would be. Dostoyevsky, and doubtless many others, have written about the exquisite sensitivity being on the scaffold can bestow and I wonder if any of those final choices were made in that light. Some are clearly sending a message but others seem almost casual.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Thick and thin

The last few stories I've turned out have not had a traditional plot. They stand in contrast to most of the others in which I tried hard to use the "person in a place with a problem" plot structure common to many works of fiction. Look here for how that plot skeleton became so popular. And here - Barry Malzberg starts talking about it from 16:42 onwards.

The first time I put together a story that lacked a plot structure I was not that worried because the tale seemed strong enough to survive without it as there was enough else going on in it. Plus re-writing it to make it hang well on that skeleton would have diminished it.

Then I did it again, and again. And the story I've just finished lacks it too. What was a isolated incident is starting to look like an epidemic.

I didn't worry until I read the comments of a reviewer on OWW who was looking over the first of the plotless batch. She asked a question that stopped me short. What are the stakes? In that story the protagonists succeed with precious little opposition. They triumph easily, too easily, over the obstacles set in their way.

The other plotless stories I've looked over share the same problem. There's nothing at stake and the threats to the actions of the protagonists are easily dealt with. There is no sense that they could fail and it could all go horribly wrong. Nothing matters. Bugger.

The standard plot skeleton suggests that the threat of failure should be at its most acute just before the resolving climax. In the current versions I have protagonists who are universally successful and face little or no serious opposition. Threats are easily dealt with.

Having to fix this, and I think I do for them to be compelling stories, puts me in a bind. This is because I kind of believe Stephen King's assertion that stories are found objects like fossils. As such there are many ways to get them out of the ground. Plot being a jackhammer that destroys as much as it liberates.

If I believe that stories are found objects then forcing them into that plot skeleton does damage. Just like it does when fossils are re-created to meet expectations of how dinosaurs lived. I hope that the destruction is creative. It will be a useful process to go through as it will get me thinking about how to tell a story.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Plot help

I found this consideration of a different way to plot useful, not least because I've been wondering if the lack of classic plot in the stories I've been writing is a good thing or bad thing. This implies that it is a good thing.

Spanish adventures

The 75th anniversary of the start of the Spanish civil war is today. How timely. Lots of good sources here. "No pasaran" means they shall not pass.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

All over the carpet

I will now attempt to discover the meaning of life in only a few hundred words. I really don't expect to produce a definitive answer but I need to stage a debate to help frame a story I am putting together. Rembrandt's Philosopher in Meditation (detail).Image via Wikipedia

Somerset Maugham summed up what I want to do in Of Human Bondage when considering the philosophical journey the central character, Philip Carey, was to undergo in the book.

"The thing then was to discover what one was and one's system of philosophy would devise itself. It seemed to Philip that there were three things to find out: man's relation to the world he lives in, man's relation with the men among whom he lives, and finally man's relation to himself."

So that's what I need answers to. But in a philosophical sleight of mind, I'm going to turn the question around to make it more tractable. Instead of looking for the meaning of life I want to consider how to give life meaning.

The story is set during the inter-war years when questions of what constituted a meaningful life were at their most acute. It was a time of class conflict, war, economic depression and epidemics. It's an interesting period to write about because choices were so stark. So much so that staying silent or taking no action was viewed as complicity.

Modernism had its birth during this period and it, amongst other things, was about setting itself against the authorities of the past and finding a new way of being. The literature of the time tended to concentrate on the individual and their attempts to preserve themselves in the face of vast and indifferent social and natural forces. It was marked by the acknowledgement of those forces, antipathy towards them and a desire to avoid the traps they set.

Ally this to morality of the modernists and you get a recipe for a meaningful life that is defined by action. Taking part, actively throwing over what has gone before becomes important. Finding and trying new ways to do things, even if the end result is questionable, is key to a good life in this time. Modernism seems keen to avoid any moral judgement on this philosophy. So people working to bring about a socialist or fascist state are both, under this approach, meaningful ways to live.

What helps with the story is that action, doing, is key. Sometimes the actions are in service of a cause, at others just to satisfy an individual. It also has to be an engagement that is total. There can be little place for the detached observer. Living rather than thinking is the more important part. It should be the case that only by looking back will it be possible to see the pattern such a life has woven. The life has to be lived without any consciousness not carefully shaped and fabricated. Be in it rather than above it.

The tenor of the inter-war years, the sheer pace of history that crashed over the period made it easier to engage with life. The various conflicts of the time, social and military, also made it hard for people to stop and philosophise about what they were doing. No matter what people did - protest, fight, work or stay silent - there were consequences to their actions or lack of them.

I also want to salt this with some of the sentiment from Sartre's Existentialism and Humanism (which was pre-figured in a lot of modernist literature as far as I can see) which tries to reveal the heroic in the stance of someone who knows the universe is indifferent but goes on with his life. As he writes, existentialism is not supposed to be about navel gazing. It is about responsibility. Do not blame your cowardice, bravery or morality on nature or nurture. Seize its implications and embrace the act. Heroes make themselves heroic, they have no-one else to blame. Nor do cowards. Nor does anyone. Make your choices and act.
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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Useful sources

George Orwell, especially on his memories of Spain.


Henry Green, and this is very useful.

This manifesto of the times is also worth reading.

Bright young people

Patrick Balfour
Harold Acton
Anthony Powell
Robert Byron
Evelyn Waugh
Babe Plunket Greene
Brenda Dean Paul
Nancy Mitford
Elizabeth Ponsonby
Cecil Beaton
Stephen Tennant
Georgia Sitwell
Inez Holden
Rosemary Sanders
Zita Jungman
Nina Seafield
Gavin Henderson
Eddy Sackville-West
Bryan Guinness
Ed Burra
John Banting
Brian Howard
Martin Wilson
Constance Lambert
Henery Green
Eddie Gathorne Hardy
Tom Driberg
Diana Mitford
Beverley Nichols
Cyril Connolly
Billy Chappell
Paddy Brodie
William Walton

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

A very great old one

I think I lost a few sanity points when I read that HP Lovecraft kept a commonplace book. More went astray when I found out that some of it had been transcribed. The horror! The horror! I'm afraid to read what was in it and lose more than 20% in a single session which could trigger a roll to see if I contract a neurosis (If I remember my CoC rules correctly).

Monday, July 04, 2011

Social signs

Contemporary technology can be a real problem when writing far-future SF.Image via Wikipedia

In the days before TV, mobiles and social networks all an SF hero needed was a lantern jaw, a laboratory, and a convenient woman with a fatal attraction for invading aliens, giant insects or rogue robots.

Even in the days when William G was writing Neuromancer mobile phones were not ubiquitous. It was published in 1984 and the first mobile call in the UK was made in 1985. So it was not odd that the future he envisaged made no mention of them. Anyone writing anything similar now would have to make mention of them, wouldn't they? For me, a future without them, or the instant communication they make possible, is inconceivable.

The rising popularity of the social network has also got me pondering. Again, they seem such a natural addition to the the way we live that to be without them in any future looks, from here, odd.

So any far future SF has to take into account ways for its members to be in contact all the time and for them to be managing the connections with friends, family and others. Even if they do it in a very different way to the cumbersome way we do it now. Smart AI will probably help manage that workload.

I could ignore it. Write as if those technologies had not come about. It's tempting. I've grown frustrated with this because I realise that it means explaining away several aspects of the world I've put together in a story. For explaining away read - hide. The main character has been kidnapped so its not surprising that he cannot contact his nearest and dearest. The others who live in this place will be able to, though.

Just thinking about this made me realise that my original conception of this story was flawed. It took no account of the consequences of technology their lives. I was thinking about their lives using the perspective of the 21st century. I find myself justifying why certain technologies and ways of life are missing to make the story work. This is despite the fact that most far future SF I have read does not take these technologies into account because they were not around when it was being written.

Do I have to? If I'm being honest about the work then I do even though deciding which technologies will survive into that far future is impossible.

More problematic is satisfying myself about the philosophical outlook of people living in a society looked after by a god-like AI. If that was the case would people worry that almost everything they do is futile? Where is free will and how can it manifest itself? If those AIs are engineering everything for maximum comfort for the majority and can do it in a way that is largely invisible then how can anyone live a fulfilling life? I'm not even sure they would realise that they did live under such a regime. Would these fish discover the water they swim in?
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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Fight club

This is a bit spooky. I'm planning, as in right now, to co-opt the Spanish civil war in a story and the UK's National Archives put online lots of records about volunteers that went to fight. There are lots of pointers to extra sources too.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Taking the lumps

"If your story is flat, your story is flat now" is a very telling observation made by Sam DelanyFigure 15 from Charles Darwin's The Expression...Image via Wikipedia and it's one that regularly hits me between the keys. It's the curse of every writer, bar Ted Chiang perhaps, to realise that what they are producing does not match the purity of the original idea. Many, many times every word that is put down only seems to slubber that gloss.

Some of that is inevitable and perhaps desirable because the working out of a story always means getting the parts to fit. Simply putting together all the parts supplied by the muse would produce a work that would be pretty much unreadable.

One aspect of story writing that is particularly difficult for me is adding emotional weight to a character's journey. Especially as the aphorism to "show, don't tell" is always on my mind. I could just write about someone's state of mind but feel that I should do more. Hence my being haunted by Delany's quote about the flatness. I've often asked myself how I add that weight but now realise that is the wrong question. That weight should arise from the events of the story. There should be emotion built in. That's easy to say but hard to do.

So this quote from Donald Maass was a real "Oh, right" moment.

"Describing grief is fine but not as effective as your protagonist saying goodbye to her dying mother - and even that is not as good as saying goodbye after a rich experience of mother-daughter love - and even that is not as good as if that love was hard won."

So, it's the cumulative effect that is important, the stakes have to be high and the story has to show that building up. That is a relief to read because it means that when I get that feeling of a story lacking emotion it is usually in the first draft. That's not to say that it would be easy to fix in the edit but it gives me a framework on which to hang my revisions. Good.

That advice feels particularly relevant for my current work in progress. It has a main character who is emotionally stunted because to make any connection with anyone where he was raised was potentially fatal. It was a very treacherous place.

The idea for the story was that the culture that has kidnapped/freed him did so because it needs his skills as cold, merciless killer. It still does but maybe it can be more complicated than that. Maybe it can also civilise, thaw, him a bit. He will not go unchanged by immersion in another place. The emotional punch could be him unbending but it will have to be preceded by lots of heartlessness and failed attempts at making a connection. Plus he'll have the prejudice about where he comes from to contend with to frustrate his emotional growth.
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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Looking back

This is a great background for the period - the interwar years - that'll be the backdrop for the next story I'm going to write. Thank you internet, it's good to know you are on my side.

This is also useful as I need good sources to guide my thinking about how the story should play out. I'm reading a couple of books written by Bertrand Russell from this period and now I can see why they make so much mention of war and conflict. The whole period is a testing ground for the right way to live a life.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

High guard

The problem with writing science fiction is the details. I've chosen an orbital as the setting for a story and as soon as I did that I hit problems. I've dodged one bullet by putting the main character in a curated section, its essentially a military sanitorium, so there's no great need to invent a novel biology to populate the place or become happy with how it was built.

I did wonder about night and day cycles, though. How would that be accomplished on suA 3D model of a Culture's orbitalImage via Wikipediach a vast structure? There are a couple of ways. Larry Niven's ringworld uses "shadow squares" set close to the structure's star that block the sunlight at regular intervals. What is most interesting about doing it this way is that the sun is always directly overhead. To someone raised on a planet that would be deeply unsettling, I'd guess. It would really underscore their sense of dislocation.

There are other ways to do it. Iain Banks' conception of an orbital generates a night and day cycle by tilting the vast structure on its orbital axis. That'll also help give the structure seasons.

One other big difference to living on an orbital/ring world would be the lack of a horizon. Again, that would be odd for a planet dweller. Instead, the vast structure would divide the sky in day and night and its great curve would lead the eye off and away until it merged with the sky.

The final question I've got to come to terms with is how many such giant structures there are. The story demands that there be enough for there to be a question over which one the main character finds himself on. So, more than four and less than 30, I'd say.

The implication of having loads of them is that the societies inhabiting these galaxies are far more advanced than I'd like. What makes the setting interesting for me is its limitations. I don't want to write a nanotech = magic = anything is possible SF story. That's just fantasy in a vacuum suit. I'm not kidding myself that what I'm depicting is plausible or likely but I want it to be true to itself. If anything is possible then actions have no consequence. You're dead? Don't worry, we can fix it. I'm more interested in worlds and cultures that are striving, are looking for that next great leap forward and can stumble along the way.

This stems from my niggling doubt about the Minds depicted in the Culture books. For me, they are too smart. That over-arching intelligence can see a hundred thousand ways to solve a problem that puny human or alien brains could simply not come up with. So, why don't they solve all problems, for everyone? I'd also guess that any significantly smart entity would also be happy with expediency - ask them about greater good and they will give you actual numbers. They also be intimately acquainted with the danger of error. They could be very, very wrong. The ultimate encapsulation of that old saw - experts are not necessarily right more often, they are just wrong for more complicated reasons.
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Monday, June 13, 2011

Dodge this

This post got me thinking, largely because I do tend to equate words with progress. This year I've organised my time to try to make myself more productive. I work to a four-week cycle. Three weeks are spent on the work in progress and I've worked out that I need to do about 400 words a day to get a story done. For some reason I find it hard to write a story that is under 5,500 words long. The other week is spent putting the story on OWW and doing reviews for others so I can get some feedback.2112wcImage by midwinter via Flickr
It's a regime that has worked well, so far, this year. I'm on track to produce more stories this year than ever before. If I keep it up all year I'll have to keep some stories back so I don't have too many in circulation. The admin side of this hobby can be very time-consuming.

What is also good about it is the effect it has had on my creativity. The first few stories I wrote this year were hard to get done. At times it felt like I was bodily dragging each word to its place on the page. For the last couple I've struggled to get everything down on the page and tend to accumulate thousands of words of notes, snippets of dialog and scenes before I start to put the story together. It's had an effect on how I use language and the way I think about the world.

Despite these good things I feel like I'm not being as productive as I could be. Especially given that some folks are writing a story a week. There's no way I can do that but I want to be sure to get my story done in the time I've allotted to it. The days I don't get those 400 words done are lost days. Or so it seems.

There are many reasons why I don't get those words done. Sometimes I don't make the total because life gets in the way, sometimes because I'm tired and sometimes it is because of my inexperience and worry that I won't be able to do a particular scene justice. But even on those days I'm turning the story over in my head, reasoning why some scenes won't work and what route to take with the work in progress.

I also keep up the journal notes about my thoughts and what should be happening in the story. Where next to go, what details to include and how to present it. That's work, there's no doubt about it. So that blog post did make me feel better because that counts too. And it does. But, but, but. But there's no dodging the fact that a story is words on the page. I can't send off those notes and ask an editor to do the work themselves. In the end only the word count, counts.
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Friday, June 10, 2011

Insane maths

A great explanation of multi-dimensional universes that uses Lovecraft's many creations, including Yog Sothoth, as examples. Ooh, and it's not the first to do it.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Calling cards

Names are important. At least I think so and I fret over them a lot, for both main characters and minor ones. I like a name to be more than just a place-holder. Ideally they should say something about the character they have been bestowed upon. Though there are some names (Adam) that I'll use rarely because they are so burdened with history. And, it has to be said, because they have been so abused in the past.

For some stories, based in particular ages, it's just a matter of consulting census records for the relevant time period and picking a few that seem right. Getting them wrong can wreck a story. I once called a character in a fantasy story Hermes Trismegistus to point up his connection to ancient magics until a reviewer, very kindly, pointed out that it as so outlandish that it over-shadowed the rest of the tale. Everyone else in that story had very down to earth names so it did mark him out too much. Suffice it to say I changed it.

There are many reasons why I can be dissatisfied with the way a story turns out but the most common one is that I didn't quite get the names right. That seems an odd thing to write, but part of what matters about a story is its consistency - in both the philosophical and cookery meanings of that word. Philosophical consistency means all the elements work together to draw a bigger picture. In formal logic, a consistent argument is one in which truth is preserved throughout ie there is no internal contradiction to undermine it.

Cookery consistency means there should be no lumps, the story should flow like a good cake batter with all its ingredients well mixed but still present to the palate when it is served up. Lordy, that was a tortured metaphor.

When I've been stumped in the past, I've tended to go classical and consult Greek and Latin dictionaries for the names of things or traits that I feel a character embodies. Moira means fate! Cool. It's worked pretty well and the intellectual in me likes the etymological playfulness of doing that.

The current work in progress was really stumping me as it is space opera, something I've not written much. With far future SF I was looking for names that are not obviously rooted in the present day but do have a useful meaning. Though I'm aware that's an impossible task. I went classical but nothing I could find really hit the spot. So I tried a different language - Hungarian. Bingo. Almost too many to use. You've got to love a language that has words for black vomit and gelding knife. To my Western ears it sounds sufficiently detached from the present day to be useful yet it has the rigor and rules of a real language. There's consistency in a philosophical sense and it feels good in the mouth. What's not to like.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Famous executioners

A list largely culled from here
Albert Pierrepoint
Souflikar
Richard Brandon
William Marwood
Fernandez Alvarez de Toledo
Giovanni Battiste Bugatti
Charles Henri-Sanson

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Money fight

The opening scene in the story I'm currently working on is an interplanetary invasion. Writing this scene has troubled me not because it is a sweeping vista of giant ships, a city under attack and troop movements but because of economics.

The Stainless Steel Rat stories by Harry Harrison formed a large part of my early SF education. I can still remember the thrill of reading the first page of the original book and I steadily worked my way through them all. The Deathword series were faves too. Jim De Griz! Jason Dinalt!

Woah, just found out Slippery Jim originated in a short story in August 1957 in Astounding.

One section in The Stainless Steel Rat's Revenge really stuck with me. It was a passage about the economics of interstellar war. It's ruinously expensive so pretty much no-one will bother in the far future, suggested Mr Harrison. That bugged me then and it bugs me now. I remember wondering if that would be the case. That, when war is too expensive, nations will not bother. Really? Really?

Lots has been written about the economics of post-scarcity societies. Some of it by economists and some by science fiction writers. Astonishingly, Nobel laureate Paul Krugman became an economist because it was the closest thing he could find to being a psychohistorian.

Anyhoo, having read a few of the pieces gathered here, here and here none have put a price on whether it is economically feasible. It's true at the moment that war is costly but we are in a scarcity society and are subject to the laws of supply and demand.

Post-scarcity opens up lots more options i.e. hand waving. Given fewer restrictions on materials and far lower costs of production then it may be more feasible. It's never going to be free and it does assume a vigorous and sustained military organisation to provide the bodies and fight the battles. Maybe that's the bigger problem. That its plausibility assumes a society happy to have a lot of its productive people locked away and prepared to fight. If the AIs are in charge would they be happy to do that. What if they are forced to? Hmmm. Maybe it will work, if only because the backdrop informs the story.

Elder and outer

An artist is spending a year to draw every creature and monster mentioned in Lovecraft's works. A great source for future works. To my mental eye, the Deep One is a bit too froggy but the Colour Out of Space is ace. I've looked at his Dunwich Horror and its as accurate as the text suggests. I've read and re-read Lovecraft's description of it but just can't picture it. I'm not sure if that means Lovecraft succeeded - because the thing was unthinkable for a puny human brain - or failed because I couldn't form a mental image of it.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Moving money

More useful source material for when I write about a bank job. Epic tales of bank jobs.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Stage fright

There are times when the music being shuffled to my ears on my iPod is eerily appropriate to my mood or place. At those times, serendipity makes me smile and puts a spring in my step. Today the internet obliged thanks to this insightful look at the stages that writer's go through. I'm a Stage Five, no doubt. Serendipity has done more than make me smile today.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A team player

Coach: There's no 'I' in team.
Player: No, but there is a me.
Coach: What?
Player: A 'me'. The letters to spell 'me', you know, 'm' and 'e', are in team.
Coach: I know how to spell 'me'.
Player: Right! So, you could say that 'I' is in team.
Coach: 'I' is not in team.
Player: But 'me' is, and me is a synonym for I. You and me. You and I. They're pretty much the same thing.
Coach: What are you saying?
Player: I'm saying that, in a sense, I is in team.
Coach: It's not.
Player: It kind of is, and so is am.
Coach: There's a what now?
Player: The letters to spell 'me' are in team and so are the letters to spell 'am'. Both are about a sense of self, an individual, so, by that count, I is in team twice.
Coach: I is not in team. Why don't you understand that?
Player: And maybe you should understand that your aphorism is miscast. That you should stop parroting cliches if you really want to make a team become more than the sum of its individuals.
Coach: Okay, smart guy. I got one for you. Since you're so struck on letters.
Player: What? What now?
Coach: Not only is there no 'I' in team, now there's no you either. You're off the team.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Old and new

Elizabeth I of England, the Armada Portrait, W...There are some words (handset, kablooie) that are clearly unfit for a story set during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1533 - 1603). But there are lots more that are ambiguous.

I've run a few of the words I'm most worried about through the OED to see if my fears are groundless or justified. Any that have lacked a definitive answer from the OED, I've used a concordance of Shakespeare as a back-up. There are some real surprises in the list - chuckle fercrissakes. Language is a constant torment and a lesson.

If the words were in use before 1608 I've deemed them safe. Later than that and they are ruled out. This has been a really useful exercise and lots of fun, its made me think about how I use some words and will make me think of different ways to say some things.

desperation (1366)
lunatic (1290)
drugged (1758)
ambition (1340)
concotion (1531 - but only of digestion. 1851 to describe a mixture)
chuckle (1743)
laboratory (1592 - in Dee's own work!)
shy (1791)
dotage (1386)
spindrift (1614 - of spray)
conversation (1340 - to mean living among others. 1830 - specifically as talk)
expansive (1651)
drugged (1758)
rug (1547 - a coarse woollen cloth)
nightgown (1475 - a loose gown worn over night clothes)
abashed (1425)
conscious (1651)
chatter (1851)
embarrassed (1683)
regularity (1600)
truncheon (1400)
bustle (1637)
fret (1556)
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Monday, May 09, 2011

Courtiers and Conspirators

I was looking for some useful people to populate a story set in and around Elizabeth I's court. What I needed was someone who had reason to hate Elizabeth and in this lot there are loads of potential candidates. What I like about this set up is that people fell in and out of favour with the Queen and sometimes relatives of those executed for treason were her most trusted statesmen. The ambiguity and fluidity of the power relationships is rocket fuel for the engine of plot. God Bless you Queen Bess!Thomas Phelippes' forged cipher postscript to ...Image via Wikipedia

Lord Chancellor - Nicholas Heath

William Cecil - principal secretary of state - stayed in the post for 40 years. Disliked by Dudley.

Robert Dudley - Master of the Horse. Disliked by Cecil. Was imprisoned with Elizabeth in the tower. He handled the plans for her coronation.

Robert Devereux - 2nd Earl of Essex. Guardian was William Cecil. Made Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. 34 years younger than the Queen. His relationship with the Queen deteriorated to such an extent that he tried to foment a coup.

Sir Philip Sydney - In and out of favour with the Queen. Uncle was Robert Dudley. Fought with Dudley in the Netherlands and was killed there in 1586.

Christopher Hatton - Captain of the Queen's bodyguard. A privy councillor and was made Lord Chancellor in 1587.

Sir Henry Lee - Master of the Armoury and the Queen's champion until 1590.

Edward de Vere - courtier, playwright and soldier. Fell out of favour with the Queen.

Lord Henry Howard, Charles Arundel, and Francis Southwell - catholics denounced to the Queen.

Thomas Radclyffe - 3rd Earl of Sussex. Arranged Mary's marriage with Philip II of Spain. Made Lord Chamberlain in 1572.

Francis Walsingham - Elizabeth's spymaster. Uncovered the Babington, Ridolfi and Throckmorton plots against Elizabeth.

Charles Paget - One of Mary's chief agents in Europe.

Thomas Morgan - Mary's cipher clerk, Welshman and involved in the Babington plot.

Admiral Sir John Hawkins - pretended to be part of the Ridolfi plot to entrap the conspirators.

Thomas Howard - Duke of Norfolk. Had a leading role in the Ridolfi plot and was executed for treason in 1572.

Roberto di Ridolfi - Florentine nobleman and conspirator.

Charles Baillie - Ridolfi's messenger.

Sir Anthony Babington - Catholic courier and one of 24 convicted of treason. The Babington plot takes its name from him.

Thomas Phelippes - forger and intelligence gatherer who worked for Walsingham.

Chidiock Tichborne - Babington plotter.

Sir Francis Throckmorton - Catholic courier found out by Walsingham. A minor plot against the Queen was named after him.
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Thursday, May 05, 2011

Hit this

Fantastic write-up of how to plan and execute a bank robbery. Lots of great advice. I particularly like the line about taking no left turns on the escape route.

History notes

About 200,000 people lived in London in 1600. About four million people lived in the whole of Britain.The watertower, Shooters Hill, London. ---- :I...Image via Wikipedia

Medieval London was only a couple of miles across. Concentrated north of the Thames, it hugged the river bank from the Tower of London in the east to Charing Cross and Whitehall in the west. The most northerly point was the priory of St Bartholomews which sat close to the windmills in Moorfields. There was only one bridge across the river.

Shooter's Hill in Greenwich is the highest point in south London. It got its name from the archers who used to practice their during the Middle Ages. It used to have a gallows at the bottom with the bodies of the hanged being put in a gibbet at the summit. In 1661 Pepys noted riding "under a man that hangs at Shooters Hill and a filthy sight it was to see how the flesh is shrunk from his bones".

Oxleas Wood lies close to Shooter's Hill.

A horse and rider can travel about 20-30 miles in a day. At walking speed they will do a mile in 15-20 minutes. At a trot they will complete a mile in 7-8 minutes. It is about seven miles from Shooter's Hill to the City of London.
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Thursday, April 07, 2011

Seating plan

A great meditation on one of the world's most ubiquitous objects - the white plastic chair. Chairman Bruce has written on this a couple of times.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

A Brown study

This is a fabulous deconstruction of the opening lines of the Da Vinci code. Forensic in its detail and instructive in how badly wrong Mr B gets it. There are lots of lessons here plus the links at the bottom offer more advice and instuction. Anaphoric is now my new favourite word.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Changing times

I sometimes find it hard to work out how different my life is thanks to the net, mobiles, twitter, texts and all the other technologies that festoon my life. But this really helped me realise how alien I am compared to how I used to be, even five years ago. I try to go analog as much as I can but so much of life is on screen that it can be hard to crawl free. It got me thinking about futures again too and how odd that future will be from here. And how strange we would look if we could go back and let everyone else know how we live our lives.

I'd hit that

There is an ace deconstruction of an action scene here, in among a lot of other gems, that really got me thinking about how to show rather than tell. For a long time I've suspected that I need to pay attention to POV during fights and other battles. But I've lacked the analysis to pick out what was wrong. I've intuitively stumbled over the words that shatter the immersion and now have a better sense of how to fix it. Good. Progress.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Soft futures

I'm always on the look out for ways to think about how the future might unfold and this article and a recent write-up of it stimulated a lot of thought. Taking oil rigs workers as an example it shows what happens when the macho culture of such high risk workplaces becomes more cautious and open. It swapped swaggering and intimidation for sharing and taking into account co-workers' feelings.

The result was lots more shut downs because people were happy to say when they thought working practices were too risky.
Wrote the authors: "In short, men routinely breached conventional-male norms, acknowledging their own and others' shortcomings as part of the learning process.”

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Gold rush?

This chat with an established author who is going the e-book route has crystallised a lot of my thinking on the matter - especially with regard to whether it is vanity publishing with the blinkers on. Food for thought.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Hell here

No-one seems to know what Hell is made of. I'm curious because the story I am working onSoil profile 236x288 38.76 KBImage via Wikipedia opens with someone being buried alive in Hell. In the interest of versimilitude I wondered what the soil is like there and how easy, or difficult, it would be for him to dig his way out.

Matthew 25:41 suggests that it was a place that God made for the devil and his angels so it may share some properties with Earthly matter given the common created. And there is another hint in Isaiah 14:12 which talks about the devil being cast down to earth. So there will be soil. Good.

There are plenty of people on the net who claim to have been to hell, but older accounts of what Hell is like are hard to find. The logic of the story dictates that I need those older accounts. There's Dante's Divine Comedy, of course, but that feels a bit, well, obvious. There is, in the writings of Roger of Wendover, the story of a peasant called Thurkill who claimed that Saint Julian took him on a tour of purgatory.

Full text versions of his writings are hard to find. But I did find this which has mentions some of the various tortures meted out to the classes of sinners. The proud, for instance, are bound with hooks to vast iron wheels which spin them round "with the most violent impetuosity".

The gluttonous are held in a loathsome pool and "perpetually crammed with toads" by devils that snatch the amphibians from tables set on the bank. If the toads perpetually renew is there a part of hell that is all toads? And how are you crammed with toads?

So not only is there soil, there are toads, flying serpents, venomous creatures and lots of devils. Though I'd guess that natural materials, wood and water to name but two, are in short supply. Hmm.

Even older are the stories from the Srimad Bhagavatam - one of the key texts of Hindus - in which the location and punishments of entire hellish planets are detailed. Some of the punishments are fairly light. For instance, those who steal another man's wife, money or children are chastised so harshly that sometimes they faint.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The write way

This checklist is so useful I almost don't want to post it.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Plans of insane asylums

Just in case I have a need to set a story in one, these should help.

Victorian cigarette brands

Cigarettes grew in popularity following the Crimean war (1853-56) when returning soldiers brought with them an innovation they got from their French allies and Russian foes.

Guinea gold
Salmon & Glucksteins Dandy Fifth cigarettes
Egyptian & Oriental Cigarette company - Sheikhs, Dragoumis and Pllatonos
Old Gold
Joy's Cigarettes
Player's Navy Cut
Wills's Bristol - Three Castles, Gold Flake, Woodbine (1888), Capstan (mild, medium, full)
Carreras - Craven A (Named after the Earl of Craven), Hankeys, Guards
Bewlay - Flor de Dindegul cigar
Newsboy Plug tobacco
St Bruno standard dark flake
Old Virginia cheroots
Philip Morris - rolled Turkish cigarettes
Benson and Hedges (1873)
Cavanders Army Club

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Now serving

Domestic servants in Victorian England were pretty ubiquitous - about 13% of the female population was in service. Everyone from the lower middle classes upwards had them, though more cash meant more servants around the place.


The minimum income needed to a daily servant who came in to do the housework was about £150 and a head teacher, journalist or shop keeper could expect to make that. Doctors, lawyers and clerks typically made much more than this (£300 - £800) and would have correspondingly more help.


There was a well-established order in which servants would be acquired too. One that everyone knew because everyone had them. Did people have conversations about getting the full set. I bet they competed to see who could have the most on the least income.


After a daily charwoman came a live-in servant, aka the maid-of-all-work, who was typically a teenager and did all the menial work of the house.


Then came a house maid and following that a nurse or cook - depending on a house’s needs. This triumvirate would typically be enough to support a family in cosy gentility. Often it was the case that servants outnumbered those that employed them.


Next servant to get would be the first manservant - these tended to be rarer as they were taxed. A valet or butler would be the first choice who could also look after the horses and carriage. An income of about £500 per year would support these four servants and a family.

On an income north of £1,000 then a house would likely acquire a dedicated groom or a girl to help the cook.


Beyond this came more specialisation and include footmen, valets, a chef, governess and many, many varieties of maid.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Atomic disappointment

I was in Las Vegas in January and took the chance to visit the Atomic Testing Museum. It's ace.Small piece of trinitite, detail, showing side...Image via Wikipedia Especially the giant A-bomb in one of the galleries that I was allowed to touch and, gulp, arm.

I wanted to go to the museum because I was sure that it was there that Dag from Generation X got the trinitite that he spills all over Claire's floor. The one she freaks out about and thinks is plutonium. I wanted to buy some as I thought it would be a cool thing to own. It turns out my memory was playing me false as the museum has never sold trinitite. Just in case anyone doesn't know, trinitite is what the first nuclear blast at the Trinity site turned the desert sand into.

So, I looked it up and it, sure enough, Dag got the trinitite he spills from a ladies auxiliary store. Whatever that is, its not the Atomic Testing Museum so I remain trinititeless. Unless the internet can help...
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