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Monday, October 31, 2011

Bread and Butter...

There's an artist whose work I like.  I contacted her to see about possibly commissioning a work, and an interesting discussion ensued.  Thanks to some things that were happening, she had trouble understanding my explicit statement that I didn't want a copy of anything by anyone.  She stated that she did not do such things; when she finally got the message she said that she didn't do commissions, but would offer a 'first refusal' to me.  I would see a work and have 24 hours to decide if I wanted it.
That seemed fair enough.  I replied that I would certainly be agreeable to that.
She forgot the arrangement (there was a lot going on) and when I approached her again to ask about a work that she had put up for sale she was nonplussed.  We got into a discussion of her work.  She supports herself with her art (she does other things on the side).   There are things that really move her, that she strives to capture, to achieve.  And there are pieces - well executed, to be sure - that put money in her pocket.  Nothing exciting.

I mentioned one piece that was available, and she said, "Well...  you know...  I hate to say it, but that is a bread and butter piece."

The inflection was interesting, almost as though there was no merit at all to it.  As though it were something cranked out to satisfy people.

I said something suitable, and we ended the conversation with the remark from me that I would be in touch.

Then I went and looked at the bread and butter painting again.

Hm.  Nice balance, a good play of color, capturing the idea of 'negative space' through the trees, on the water...  I have a pretty good eye for quality, and this had it - in my eyes.

I started mulling over the notion of 'bread and butter' work, and the notion that people who like something that is not exactly a magnum opus are somehow stupid or tiresome. 

No one likes the paparazzi (not that they chase after me), and clamorous people who say that everything you do is fabulous, even when you know jolly well that it isn't up to your own standards can be pretty annoying.  But still...  There's a kernel of liking, of acceptance, even of love in such attitudes.  So why are they so often considered a pain in the neck?

I was at a cat show once, chatting with a woman who bred Burmese.  A man came by, smiled at her cats, complimented her on their beauty, and then said that he had a Burmese at home.  A Champagne Burmese.  The woman said, "Champagnes are just poor quality sables." and turned away. 

I was too stunned at this ferocious rudeness to do what I should have, which was to run after him, tell him that his champagne was gorgeous, and introduce him to people with Burmese like him.  What had he done to merit contempt?  He admired her work.  Rather like admiring the artist's 'bread and butter' work.  The stuff that supports her.

Next time someone admires my bread and butter work, I'm going to do what I always do: smile and thank him.  It isn't hard to do.  And who knows?  Maybe he'll want to buy some more bread and butter...

Wednesday, October 5, 2011


A writer of historical fiction/mystery (like me) runs into the problem of Anachronism on a regular basis, whether in trying to avoid it or in accidentally inserting it into a work.

Webster defines Anachronism as:

1: an error in chronology; especially: a chronological misplacing of persons, events, objects, or customs in regard to each other
2: a person or a thing that is chronologically out of place; especially: one from a former age that is incongruous in the present
3: the state or condition of being chronologically out of place

A reader posted a review of my book The City of Refuge on a message board devoted to reading. This person is very widely read, eloquent, knowledgeable, with a fine understanding of writing, both style and content, and an excellent critical eye. The review was invaluable to me, and I re-read the story with an eye to improving it.

 One of his comments, though, was this:
There are some anachronisms that could also be jarring, the worst was a character saying 'It boggles the mind.' - which made me laugh, but could annoy those who are purists. There are others, but I find if I am enjoying the rest of the book, I can accept them.

Here is the scene. The story is set in ancient Egypt, approximately 1309 BC. The speakers are a general ('Seti') and the commander of a provincial army ('Khonsu').
     After the man had left, Khonsu turned to Seti. "Lord Achtoy," he said. "Nothing less than a hero of Egypt and a Commander of Five Thousand, sent to carry a message all the way north from Thebes to a wrecked city in order to tell us to leave His Grace alone."
     "The mind boggles," Seti agreed. "Well, now we know what His Grace had waiting for us."

That made me blink. That was an anachronism? In what way?
The verb 'to boggle' dates from around 1590, per Webster.

Definition of BOGGLE
Intransitive verb
1: to start with fright or amazement : be overwhelmed
2: to hesitate because of doubt, fear, or scruples
transitive verb
2: to overwhelm with wonder or bewilderment
Origin of BOGGLE
First Known Use: 1598
So the verb 'to boggle' seemed anachronistic to the reader. That's fair enough, though the term, actually, is not a modern one and not tied to any sort of technology that would tend to disqualify its use in a novel set in the distant past.

My thoughts turned to the various things that I consider 'anachronisms', per the definition. Let's look at them in the context of that bit of conversation:

Here's one type:
You can have anachronistic speech: 

'Loud and clear', a radio term, is a different matter. Wireless telegraphy was proven to be possible in the late 1800's; Guglielmo Marconi invented the radio in the early 1900's. The expression was used extensively by the military during World War II to acknowledge radio messages. An ancient Egyptian would not have used such an expression, though he might have said "He couldn't have made his message any clearer if he had shouted it."
We tend to assume that what is normal for us was normal throughout time. Hollywood tends to make this mistake. We have Pharaoh Khufu (Cheops) shouting "Saddle my swiftest camel!" in Land of the Pharaohs (screenplay by William Faulkner, whose grounding in early history was sketchy, but who wrote a heck of a good story)

Some people perceive anachronisms in things that are in their proper time and place. One friend, reading one of my manuscripts, told me quite seriously that "They didn't have beer in ancient Egypt!"   Well, there's some doubt as to whether the Sumerians or the Egyptians invented beer (my money is on the Sumerians), but they sure had it. Someone writing in the time of classical Greece likened the quality of Egyptian beer to the best wines.

What is the point of this discussion? I have two of them.

First, and most importantly, research is crucial if you are writing of a specific time and place. Secondly - and this is often unrecognized - the reader is the ultimate judge of fitness (for himself).

My reviewer, to whom I am very grateful for a well thought out and meaty critique that will be very useful when I do revisions, felt that a specific expression was out of place. I did not agree, but I adjusted it after thinking it over.   Writers tend to live within their own minds, and it's easy to forget the audience.

That is a big mistake.
     After the man had left, Khonsu turned to Seti. "Lord Achtoy," he said. "Nothing less than a hero of Egypt and a Commander of Five Thousand, sent to carry a message all the way north from Thebes to a wrecked city in order to tell us to leave His Grace alone."
     "The mind boggles," Seti agreed, reaching into the breast of his tunic, extracting his cigarette pack, and shaking one loose.  He tapped the cigarette against his palm to settle the tobacco,  Setting the filter end in his mouth, he struck a match against his sandal, lit the cigarette, and took a long drag. "Well," he said through the smoke that curled from one corner of his mouth, "now we know what His Grace had waiting for us."

The anachronisms here are the cigarette and the match. Every culture in history has habits like smoking, whether it is chewing betel nut or spruce gum. But tobacco is a new world plant, and the earliest depiction we have of its use is Mayan, after dynastic Egypt.

      After the man had left, Khonsu turned to Seti. "Lord Achtoy," he said. "Nothing less than a hero of Egypt and a Commander of Five Thousand, sent to carry a message all the way north from Thebes to a wrecked city in order to tell us to leave His Grace alone." He sat back and shook his head. "Well," he said, "His Grace got his message across loud and clear!"
     "Good grief!" Seti agreed.
In this case 'good grief' might be allowed. It seems to be a 'softened' exclamation: 'good grief' instead of 'good God'. Since it was made popular in Charles Schultz' Peanuts comic strip, I'd tend to stay away from it, myself.

Incidentally, here is the changed passage:
After the man had left, Khonsu turned to Seti. "Lord Achtoy.  Nothing less than a hero of Egypt and a Commander of Five Thousand, sent to carry a message all the way north from Thebes to a wrecked city in order to tell us to leave His Grace alone."
"Incredible," Seti agreed. "Well, now we know what His Grace had waiting for us."
Camels were a late arrival in Egypt. So were chariots (at least as to the reign of Cheops). Also (staying with Land of the Pharaohs for a moment), the short wrap skirt, head cloth and light scarf of Thai raw silk woven in a sort of plaid worn  by Jack Hawkins as Cheops, along with gold lame' sandals are out of their proper time, as well, no matter how sweet he may have looked in them.

The same person informed me, quite seriously, that "they didn't have bricks back then, either."  (This was one of my fantasy novels, set in no time in particular.) I only smiled.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Author's Pet

I read a book a while back that had me puzzled.  It was well crafted, colorful, moved at a good pace, but there was something skewed...  I put my finger on it when I reread the description of the hero.  He was just fabulous.  His name consisted of four luscious, historical names strung together.  He was a duke, the king's best friend.  But the thing that brought everything into focus was his physical description, right down to his blond sideburns, in lingering detail.  Gosh, he was handsome, with that bloom of golden hairs that bordered those sideburns. 

Yep,  I thought.  An author's pet.

You run into them fairly often in detective series.  The characters who set foot in a messy situation and you just know that things will be straightened out at once.  They're always fabulously handsome or beautiful, unbelievably accomplished.

A recent series of mysteries had as its main sleuth a woman who was, among other things, an Olympic Equestrian, a (top winning) competitive ballroom dancer in addition to being young, beautiful, and a top-ranking forensic anthropologist.  I wasn't sure when she slept.  Another story featured a female sleuth, fresh out of college, who happened to be visiting the UK when a bad situation came up.  She was summoned to Scotland Yard and had an interview with one of the top-ranking people there.

"I want you to assist us with this," he says to her.  "We need your trained mind."

Trained mind?  I thought.  In a kid that age?  Well, to be fair, it was the writer's first book, and from what I could see he/she was trading on the fact that his/her mother was a best-selling author.  And the writer had quite an author's pet.

Writers do have them.  I have a character who could be one.  I love writing about him.  He's a lot of fun, lends a lot of color to his stories (I'm working on a sequel).  He's my own invention - except for his name, which is historical.  Who is he?  An Egyptian crown prince.  Named for the eldest son of Ramesses II, but I went off on a tangent with his story.

I don't think he is quite the 'ta-DA!' sort.  I worked very hard to keep him from being one.  He has his own reality.

I think what lies at the heart of 'Authors' Pets' is the author imposing his or her own desires on the character without taking into account the personality of the character as developed through the author's writing.  The moment you put words on paper they become real.  If you have something happen in your story, it is fact.  So, if in the course of a story you have a character that behaves in a certain way and has (at least in your mind) certain characteristics, then everything he does must be in conformity with his reality as you have given it.

My Crown Prince character (his name is 'Hori') started out as a villain of sorts.  About twenty years ago I started writing various vignettes based on books I was working on at the time.  This was before I had a computer and electronic storage ability.  These vignettes (I called them 'fragments' or 'blips') occurred to me and I typed them out.  I had several stories based on the character of Khaemwaset, the fourth son of Ramesses and, at one point, his crown prince.  We know a fair amount about him.  In the course of weaving stories around him, I jotted an account of a jubilee festival that he hosted for his father when he was High Priest at Memphis.

His older brother, the Crown Prince, makes an appearance and says something nasty. 

The jottings sit in a three-ring binder, but Pharaoh's Son owes some of its substance to them.  In that novel a colossal statue falls in the middle of a festival throng, causing havoc.  Khaemwaset (from now on 'Khay') looks into matters; it happened in his own backyard, since he is the Vizier, or Prime Minister, of Northern Egypt, and the High Priest of the temple where it occurred.  He asks for assistance from Pharaoh, who sends his Crown Prince, (from now on 'Hori') to oversee things with his brother.

Hori was not a happy fellow.  He was arrogant, had a sharp tongue, and did not suffer fools gladly.  He strode into the story...

When you write about someone, you work both forward (in time) and backward (in history).  Going forward the character might do something...but that may have arisen out of something that happened before.  So it was with Hori.  His history developed - a soldier who is happiest overseeing the military concerns of the realm, called back to court against his wishes and angry and unhappy.  So why did Khay ask for him?  Hm...  Because they had renewed their friendship and Khay knew that Hori was unhappy.

The story moved from there.  A character that was supposed to be, if not a villain, certainly an unpleasant sort of person with humorous involvement, became one of the two heroes of the story.  I guess I let him grow up.

I've read books where the characters appear to have been stamped out and maneuvered like puppets.  I've read scenes that, given the characters' personalities and histories as developed in the course of the story, should never have happened.  Well...

Georgette Heyer, in Sylvester, or The Wicked Uncle, expresses things nicely:

These naïve words struck Phoebe dumb for several moments. It had not previously occurred to her that Ianthe might identify herself with The Lost Heir's golden-haired sister. Having very little interest in mere heroes and heroines she had done no more than depict two staggeringly beautiful puppets, endow them with every known virtue, and cast them into a series of hair-raising adventures from which, she privately considered, it was extremely improbable they would ever have extricated themselves.

It's all part of letting go, letting the thing you love - in this case the story and the character - be true to itself.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

...To Be Continued...

This world is not conclusion;
A sequel stands beyond,
Invisible, as music,
But positive, as sound.
(Emily Dickinson)

People are naturally curious.  They like to 'fill in the blanks'.  When I was growing up, I'd see someone and figure out what went before I saw him and then project what would happen to him afterward. I still do it.  In cases of extreme annoyance, I sometimes write a mental scene in which the person in question has an unpleasant experience - usually involving a blueberry cream pie in the face.  (Blueberry stains and custard is gooey.)

How many times have you read a book and wondered what happened to the characters afterward?  Jane Austen addressed this curiosity about her characters' lives, I understand, after Emma was published.  She stated that Mr. Woodhouse lived a time after Emma and her Mr. Knightly married (and moved in with him) and by dying allowed them take up residence in Mr. Knightly's residence of Donwell Abby.

While it is wonderful to finish a story, I always feel a strong sense of loss when I have to leave characters that I grew to love.   It's like leaving beloved friends.  You can write a sequel - I'm doing it right now with Pharaoh's Son - but sometimes the books stand alone and require no sequel.  In The Safeguard, my novel set in 1864 Georgia, the story ends in October of 1865 as Lavinia sees her little daughter throw aside her imaginary tea set, pick up her skirts, and go tearing across the lawn toward Sheppard, who has returned as he promised.  They marry, certainly, and they probably spend their time between her properties in Georgia and his home in Geneva, New York.  But there are no conflicts, no loose ends.  To follow them would be a letdown.

At the end of A Killing Among the Dead, Wenatef is leaving Egypt.  There is no life for him there, and he knows he will not live the year out if he stays.  But he's heard of a white substance found in the mountains across the ocean, something soft and cold that you can crush in your hands like bread dough.  He decides to leave Egypt and travel to the mountains to see the white substance called 'snow'.    Somehow, that situation caught my readers' attention and people ask me "Will you write a story about Wenatef encountering snow?"

Well...  I may just write a quick several pages for my father, who really wants to see it.  But the story is set and while I have my own opinion of Wenatef's future, it isn't necessary to write a sequel.

How many series have continued to be written because the author has bowed to the wishes of a public who wants, say, just one more Sherlock Holmes story?  Or one more (fill in the blank with the name of a popular detective) story? I think the test of the necessity of a sequel is this: is there an overarching story line that mandates more than one 'story'?  For example, in the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling, each story is complete in itself, but when they are strung together they lead to the final resolution envisioned in the first novel. 

Perhaps we are too used to being spoon-fed.   We are told what is what, our children play on toys that do everything for then, we sit in a constant stream of information and statistics.   I do not see that we are allowed much scope for the use of that wonderful power, imagination.  Perhaps we don't want to use it.  It's too dangerous.  Like a half-broken horse, it can run away with us and take us places that are uncomfortable, wild, perilous.

There's a piece of conversation toward the end of A Killing Among the Dead that seems to fit into this train of thought.  When Wenatef is speaking with Unas the last time they meet, and Unas speaks of his madness:

"...To turn away from that - to fight free.."  He drew a shaking breath and was still.
"You can do it," Wenatef said.  "The choice is yours." 

It isn't such a terrible plunge to take.  Let me set it up:

"So...  What happens next?"
"Next?  What do you mean?  That's the end of the book."
"No, really - what happens next after he leaves Egypt?"
The author sits back with a smile.  "What do you think happens next?" she asks.

Try it.  it's fun.  Addictive, too.  In a nice way.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Writing Tools

Look familiar?
I like tools.  Any type of tools.  I can easily spend a month's salary in a hardware store.  Or an office supply store.  Pens, pencils, screwdrivers, notebooks of all sizes, post-it notes, three-ring binders - I love them all.

But there are different types of tools, and each trade has its own.  For a writer the most important, I would imagine, are the writer's imagination followed by his or her command of words, then grammar...  You get my drift.  I could get very philosophical and talk about writers with fabulous imaginations, but without the ability to write.  I'd love to cite Edgar Rice Burroughs, for example - except that I enjoy his writing.  But having read this passage, I can only chuckle:
"Your time shall come, then, I-Gos", Gahan assured the other, "and if you have any party that thinks as you do, prepare them for the eventuality that will succeed O-Tar's presumptuous attempt to wed the daughter of the Warlord.  Where shall I see you again, and when?  I go now to speak with Tara, Princess of Helium."
    (From The Chessmen of Mars (c) 1922 by Edgar Rice Burroughs)
To be a writer, you need to have a writer's abilities, so we can set that to one side.  But what of the tools that help the writer to write?

Something to write with, I'd imagine.  Nowadays if you don't have a good word processing system, you're in trouble.  I remember buying my first computer, put out by Epson.  I don't know what its memory capacity was. I do know that if I wanted to use my word processing system (a very, very distant version of Word Perfect called 'Professional Word', as I recall) I had to fire up my computer (inserting the start-up disk, which was the size of a 45 record), then insert my program disk in the lower drive.  Then I could start writing.

I was resistant, initially.  What's wrong with typing things?  I type well and quickly (110 wpm at last testing).  I was converted the first time I decided to change a character's name and used Global Search to do so.  I never looked back.

That computer performed valiantly but was replaced in due time with one that had maybe one gigabyte of memory.  It took the diskettes that were a lot smaller and sturdier than the originals.  I converted most of them as quickly as I could.

Some place to store what you've written - like a diskette.  Hard copies are nice enough - except that you end up having to retype them which I now do not feel is quite so easy as I did.  Writers are always fiddling with things.  I'd make changes and save the changes - on a new diskette.  If you check out the photo, you'll see that I have lots and lots of those diskettes - and the only machine I have that can read them is a Dell desktop that is getting old and crotchety.  (I'm writing this on an ACER Aspire that has a 300 gb hard drive, takes flash drives and CDS, and works beautifully.  But it doesn't read my old diskettes.

Diskettes are not the only storage venues.  If you look at the photo, you'll see a slice of my storage means: three-ring binders (the big, fat one sitting atop the bottom manuscript contains jottings on four different stories, none of which were ever saved to electronic media.  Salvageable?  Maybe.  I'm looking through them.

Then there are the notebooks.  I have lots of them.  I keep one in my purse and if something occurs to me, I jot it down.  How many times have I had a great idea for tweaking a scene, thought "Oh, I'll remember it!" and then discovered that I couldn't.  I came up with quite a system for jotting down, transcribing, and then marking what I transcribed.  But I hung on to the notebooks.  Lately, I was interested to see the absolute first notation on one of my books, The City of Refuge.  I had noted an idea for the story - and it was fairly well-developed - around 1984.  It sat in limbo for a time, then came into full blossom around 1994.

Pens.  Can you have enough?  I used to say that something like White-Out was a must. I don't think so any more.
Most recently, I bought a stack of steno pads and four college-ruled 8 1/2 x 11  spiral bound notebooks.  I might need them.

In fact, I think I need to go through what I have and figure out what I need.

...and convert those old diskettes to CDS before I lose something crucial.

Friday, July 15, 2011

I Am a Writer...

Diana Wilder at Yosemite

I am a writer.  That is to say, I write books.  I do other things, as well, but this blog is devoted to my writing.  Where it comes from, what I'm doing, what I'm enjoying, what is annoying me.  Not so much of the last part, actually.

Why am I a writer?  Well, because it suits me.  I like to tell stories, whether or not I have an audience.  I make up stories in my mind - or perhaps I tend to 'fill in the blanks' on a situation, and it becomes a story.  I write some of them down.  Where do they come from?  All over the place.  I used to carry a notebook around with me to catch my thoughts; I fell out of the practice during a hurried and harried time, but I'm back to it.

What have I been doing?

Well, I wrote my first poem back in fourth grade a few decades ago.  It was so much fun, I kept up with it.  Some of my poetry is enjoyable, some isn't. I  haven't done much of it in years; it is a demanding activity, and my writing skills lie in another direction.  Or maybe I mean that I enjoy channeling the skills in the direction in which they're going at the moment.

I wrote my first novel, as such, around 8th grade.  Hand written in fountain pen.  I still have it.  It's a story about Hawaii in the time of Kamehameha the great.  The title was Born of the Sea.   I followed that up a couple years later with a story that was set in French Canada around the time of the French and Indian Wars.  That didn't have a title, though someone suggested Jaws because some of my characters were rather chatty.

I went to college and a year of grad school.  I was involved in the student newspaper and the fine arts publication, and a number of my poems were printed there.  I wrote a colum - thinking aloud, I guess.  Actually, the colum was rather like a blog.  I did have a following, but it was cut short when I graduated.

Then came The Snowhawk.  That gets a post of its own.  My first full length novel (in three parts, too, so it's a three-fer).  I wrote it before electronic copies and there it sits, not edit-able because it's only in hard copy.  But there are other things about it that have earned it an honest retirement.

I have four novels published and more in the works.  But that's another blog post.