Things You Figure Out about the Past

…if you live in a cold climate and are stingy with your heating (as we have always been, first because we were heating with a wood furnace, and willingness to put up with lower interior temperatures directly correlates with unwillingness to move large heavy logs from woodpile to furnace several times a day for an entire winter; and second because when we finally got tired of heaving logs around we dropped back to the electric baseboard heat, which is like burning dollar bills to keep warm):

  • Footstools weren’t just ornamental. They were to keep your feet off the cold floor, so that what warmth you could pull around yourself didn’t leak out through the soles of your shoes.
  • Shawls and caps and fingerless gloves weren’t just fashion statements. They kept the drafts off the back of your neck, and kept heat from leaking out through the palms of your hands and the top of your head.
  • Lapdogs weren’t just frivolous pets. They were self-propelled organic personal space heaters for people who could afford the cost of feeding an otherwise unproductive household critter. (Cats and small terriers could also fulfill the “space heater” function, but escaped the “silly rich woman’s toy” stigma by also catching household vermin.)

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Presented for Your Amusement

A quartet of links to things that caught my eye or tickled my fancy over the past few days:

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Descriptive Linguist Tom Scott Preaches the Good Word

The good word, in this case, is the singular neutral gender pronoun they, and Scott has a wonderful YouTube video and accompanying post on the subject.

He’s got a whole bunch of other posts about linguistics up on YouTube, and they’re all worth watching and reading.  It’s nice to see entertaining pedagogy taking place outside a formal context; knowledge is a good thing, and deserves a chance to go out in public and meet people, instead of staying cooped up in the classroom all the time.

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The Muse at War

It’s possible to go through an entire writing career without having to send your characters off to war.  But even in the most unlikely of genres – “sex and shopping” summer beach novels, or literary novels set in darkest Academe – an unexpected plot turn can have your characters heading for the sound of the guns (or the clash of swords, depending upon the era and the tech level), and next thing you know, there you are, smack dab in the middle of a pitched battle.  You may even, if you’re working in some of the more speculative genres, have to make up a battle from scratch.

How, then, to make the ensuing military engagement, if not realistic, at least credible?  There are a couple of reliable ways.

One way, of course, is personal experience.  If you have it, you know already that you do, and you might as well get all the use out of it that you can.  About the only thing you need to remember is that fiction has to be believable, whereas reality is under no such constraint.

The other way, of course, is research.  There’s research done the slow way, when you read political history and military history and Sun Tzu and Clausewitz and the memoirs of a lot of people who got out of their various wars alive and wrote about them afterward, and play a lot of war games and maybe do some historical re-creation on the side, and then put all of that together to synthesize your battle.

Then there’s research done the fast way, where you steal a battle outright.  This is especially useful when the military aspect of the plot isn’t the main thing – maybe you’re more interested in the romance, or the politics, or the class/race/gender/whatever issues – but you’ve nevertheless found yourself in a corner of the story where the only way out is through this enormous set-piece battle that you somehow have to write.

What you do, at that point, is pick a historical battle from roughly the same era-and-tech-equivalent as your fictional one, and shamelessly use the terrain and maneuvers and eventual outcome of that battle as the template for your own.  It helps to pick a relatively obscure engagement – more people than you suspect are likely to recognize the double-envelopment of Cannae, or the defense of Little Round Top at Gettysburg – and to pick a single point of view character and stick as much as possible to just what he or she is experiencing.

And then you don’t tell anybody what battle you stole.  If some fan writes you a letter, or corners you at a convention or a book signing, and says, “Hey – wasn’t that space battle in Book Two of your trilogy a rip-off of the Battle of the River Plate, only in space?”, you can give them a big smile and say, “Why, yes, indeed!  How clever of you to notice!”

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Seasonal Special from Dr. Doyle’s Editorial and Critique Services

In the spirit of making the Yuletide (or other seasonal holiday of your choice) a bit brighter all ‘round:

From now through Twelfth Night (5 January 2015), my price for a full-dress line-edit plus a 3-5 page letter of critique drops to a flat $1000 for a standard-weight novel.

This offer can also be combined with the Seasonal Gift Certificate I blogged about earlier.

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Giving Thanks

Things I’m thankful for, as a writer:

  • The word-processor/printer combination, a wonder of modern technology that’s eliminated so much of the sheer physical drudgery of turning a story into submittable text.  There are probably writers out there, these days, who never had to wrestle with an electric – or worse, a manual – typewriter and a ream of 20-pound bond paper and a bottle of white-out, making mental calculations all the while as to exactly how many corrections they could get away with on the finished page before having to trash it and start over.  I do not miss those days at all; as soon as I could afford the tech, I was there.
  • The internet, which in addition to supplying us with distractions such as cat pictures and “Which Classic Dessert Are You?” quizzes, also brings the resources of great museums and research libraries to our homes and offices.  Books and pictures that we would otherwise have needed to drive for miles just to take a look at, are now ours for the click of a mouse, as is expert advice on everything from high fashion to horsemanship.
  • The e-book revolution, which bids fair to do for reading in this century what the paperback revolution did for it in the last one.
  • And, of course, all the friends and colleagues and readers (including, of course, you) who are a source of kindness and good company in what is, of necessity, a mostly solitary occupation.

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For Your Amusement

A trio of links:

These people have developed a blight-resistant American chestnut tree, and are now crowdfunding a project to plant 10,000 new trees and start the work of bringing the species back to American forests.

Here are some nifty pictures of spherical layer cakes frosted to look like planets – complete with proper planetary cores.  And here’s a link to a tutorial on how to make one yourself at home.

And finally, in honor of the upcoming holiday, a link to NASA’s cornbread dressing recipe.

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