You Find All Sorts of Things on the Internet

Especially when you’re doing research.

Some of the odder and/or more interesting (and even sometimes useful) places I’ve found in the course of doing research for different projects:

An Enigma Machine simulator.

A Vest Pocket Guide to Brothels in 19th-Century New York.

A timeline of historic food prices.  With a collection of links to historic menus.

A page for converting dates to and from the French Revolutionary Calendar.  (If you’re curious, today is Décade I, Decadi de Brumaire de l’Année CCXXI de la Revolution.)

One of many online date-of-Easter calculators, in case you want to know what date Easter is going to fall on in the year 2525.  (April 15th, by the Gregorian calendar, for the Western churches.)

An on-line text of Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management.

No wonder research is so dangerous . . . you can fall into it and never come out.

Peeve of the Day

I know you’ve heard this one before.  And I concede right now that there’s no logical reason why “already” should be spelled as one word with a single “l”, while “all right” is two words and a double “l”.

Language isn’t consistent, okay?  It’s in a constant state of change, and not all the bits of it change at the same rate.  At some time in the future, “all right” may well have finished mutating into the single-word, single-“l” form — but that time is not now.

There.  I’ve got that off my chest, so it’s back to the word mines.

Buried Tech

Language is full of buried tech.  For the writer of historical or created-world fiction, this poses some interesting problems.

On the one hand, you’ve got the language of tech that hasn’t been invented yet (for historical fiction) or that flat doesn’t exist (for created-world fiction.)  Consider, for example, all the resources of vocabulary and metaphor that come from living in the world after the discovery of gunpowder:  We speak of people going off half-cocked, and of plans hanging fire; we talk of loose cannons; we say that someone has a hair-trigger temper.  None of these expressions make sense in worlds where gunpowder and firearms are absent.  Using them in those contexts is sloppy writing — it may not bother most of your readers, but the ones that it does bother, it will bother a great deal.

Another example of not-invented-yet tech causing language problems:  In a pre-clockwork world, you aren’t going to have people saying, or even thinking, things like “in a few seconds” or “a couple of minutes later” — the resources didn’t exist to divide time into pieces that small.  In most parts of medieval Europe, for example, you’d be lucky to get things pinned  down to the nearest canonical hour, and that only if you were someplace where you could hear the church bells ringing.  (For really brief intervals of time, a person might think in terms of breaths or heartbeats, or in terms of how long it took to recite a particular prayer, such as “a Pater-Noster while.”)

The other language problem you get with buried tech comes from obsolete technology — things that were once common enough to pass into metaphorical use, but that have fallen into desuetude while their metaphorical use continues.  For a good example of this, take a look at this entry over at Making Light, in which the actual mostly-disused process behind the still-common phrase “batten down the hatches” is explained and discussed.  The question for writers in this case is, how long does it take before the metaphor becomes completely detached from the object or process that it once referred back to, so that it can function simply as a bit of vocabulary in its own right?

“Batten down the hatches,” even used in its figurative sense of “to make ready for possible disruption ahead”, still implies a world and a society in which sailing ships once existed; but if you’re writing about a created world in which — for whatever reason — there isn’t enough open water to make sailing ships a part of its past history, can you get away with using “batten down the hatches” in its figurative sense?

My guess is no — not for a couple of centuries.  Possibly longer, if people keep on writing adventure stories about the Age of Sail, and other people keep on reading them.

It’s a fraught thing, vocabulary.

Disaster Prep

It looks like Hurricane Sandy is going to hit the East Coast like a fist.  Even here in far northern New Hampshire, with an entire mountain range between us and the shoreline, the local public works guys are pre-positioning road barriers and suchlike in case of flooding from heavy rain.  (When you have local landmarks with names like Roaring Brook, it’s not hard to guess what lots of rain coming down on the tops of the local mountains can do to the land at the bottom.)  And everybody in Vermont is hoping that this storm doesn’t decide to pull an Irene and come ramping and stamping up the Connecticut River Valley, because some places over there haven’t yet recovered from the last set of floods.  And all of our friends on the coast, from Boston down to Baltimore, are white-knuckling it while they wait to find out just where Sandy’s punch is going to strike hardest.

If you’re in any of the likely-to-be-affected areas, don’t forget to secure your writing while you’re bringing the lawn chairs inside and laying in a supply of bottled water and batteries.  Nobody wants to be left in the position of having to either rewrite an entire book from the beginning or toss it out as an impossible job.

There are a number of different ways to make certain your work-in-progress stays safe.  Offsite backup to the cloud, via services like Dropbox or Google Drive, is a good starting point.  (If you don’t like or trust cloud computing, you can always e-mail a copy of the current WIP to a trusted friend.)  A flash drive or portable hard drive that you can shove into your pocket or your laptop case on the way out the door is also a good idea — that way, if you end up crashing for a week with Great-Aunt Eunice who lives in a big house on high ground with no internet and a dozen cats, you can still keep on working as long as you’ve got power.

As for the storm itself — you’re a writer.  Observe, and take copious mental notes.  It’s what we do.

Word Peeve of the Day

Today’s word peeve (I can’t help it; deadlines make me peevish): a couple of not-exactly-homonyms, affect and effect.

People mix these up a lot, and it’s not really surprising.  They look exactly alike except for that initial vowel, and in spoken English the difference between those unstressed vowels becomes even more obscured.  Just to add another layer of confusion to the vocabulary cake, each of them can function both as a verb and as a noun.

It works like this:

Effect has its ancestry in the Latin verb facere, meaning to make or do or bring about (plus a host of related extended meanings), plus the Latin prefix ex-, meaning from or out of (among other related things.)

Effect-the-noun, accordingly, is something that is made or done or brought about:  One effect of the hurricane was a prolonged power outage.

Effect-the-verb is less common; it means to cause or bring about something:  The new mayor hopes to effect some changes in local disaster response policy.

Affect also goes back to that same Latin verb facere, this time with the prefix ad-, meaning to or toward.

Affect-the-verb is the more common one here; it means to do something or cause something to happen to someone or something else:  The hurricane will affect the east coast from Maine to the Carolinas.

Affect-the-noun is the least common of the lot; it’s mostly used in psychiatry and related disciplines, and refers to the outward manifestation of someone’s inward state.  A person who isn’t showing much by way of such outward manifestation has a flat affect — his/her affect, in this case, is the behavior that he/she is turning toward the world/the observer.  Most of the time you won’t need to worry about this one.

(As you probably have guessed, I’ve got hurricanes on the mind right now.  I’m not in the storm’s current path, but I know people who are.)

More on Names

A couple of thoughts on names, as I surface from the depths of deadline madness:

Avoid alliteration and echo.  (I know — you saw what I did there.)  If you’ve got one character named Fred, don’t name his best friend Frank.  The same goes for his worst enemy, his favorite second cousin, or any other major character he’s likely to interact with on a regular basis.  And don’t name his sister Frances, either.  Your readers will thank you.

In the real world, of course, you’re likely to find clusters of alliteration all over the place — we’re all of us likely to know more people than there are vowels and consonants in the alphabet.  But fiction isn’t the real world.

Also: When inventing names for characters in a created-world fantasy, it’s generally a bad idea to borrow names wholesale from an existing or past this-world culture — your readers may make assumptions about your imagined culture that you didn’t intend, or may decide that you’ve borrowed more than just the names.  This is a can of worms you don’t want to open by accident.  (Cans of worms should only be opened deliberately and after considerable forethought.)

Making up your own names out of nothing but a handful of phonemes is a tricky process, depending a lot upon having a good ear for such things — and fewer people have a good ear for such things than think they do.  There are computer programs these days that generate English nonsense-words, meaningless but pronounceable collections of phonemes that can be sifted through for potential names:  Gammadyne’s Random Word Generator is a full-featured program with a lot of customizable options; or if you’re looking for something quick and free, the nonsense word generator on this page will display you a list.  Of course, you’re still stuck sorting through lists of words like Acenmithok, Cegraen, Heunara, Seligis, Cersposhe, Lis or Ellets, Michapere, Abiled, Aliger, Dernald for the ones that’ll actually work .

My own keepers out of that bunch, if they were all going to be characters in the same story, would be Heunara, Seligis, Lis, and Dernald; Heunara and Lis would be female and Seligis and Dernald would be male.  But that’s mostly because I’m arrogant enough to believe that I do have a good ear for such things.  Or at least a trained one.

(A quick-and-dirty shortcut, if you don’t want to go the computer-generated route:  Look at the names of minor characters in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain and Malory’s Morte D’Arthur.  They’re pronounceable, they’re in the fantastical vein, and they draw on the raw material of the common French/English/Celtic name-hoard without being obvious about it.)

A Literary Blast from the Past

To be specific, it’s the original contract between Harper&Brothers — one of the ancestor firms of current publisher HarperCollins — and Herman Melville for Moby-Dick.

Publishing contracts haven’t changed all that much since then; they’ve just gotten longer and more complex.  Melville, wisely, had representation, in the person of his-brother-the-lawyer.  (Literary agents in the modern sense — if Wikipedia is to be believed — didn’t become common until the 1880’s, and Moby-Dick was published in 1851.)

I Knew There was Something I Forgot to Do Yesterday

And guess what?  It was updating this blog.  (See previous post about looming deadlines and encroaching tunnel vision.)

By way of apology . . . a recipe.  Not as mindless as some of my deadline standbys, but simple enough, and filling.

Scalloped Potatoes with Ham and Cheese

You need:

  • 8 potatoes, peeled and sliced thin (I used russets, because they were on sale, but I expect that any kind would do.)
  • 1 pound, more or less, sliced ham (enough to make one layer in a 13×9 serving dish, anyhow.  I used leftovers from a spiral-sliced cooked ham that was also on sale, but you could just go up to the deli counter and ask for a pound of Virginia ham, sliced thick.  No one says you have to put it all into sandwiches.)
  • 1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
  • bread crumbs

2 cups of cream sauce, made thusly:

  •     4 T (1/2 stick) butter
  •     4 T flour
  •     1 cup chicken stock (I usually make it up from a jar of chicken stock base that I keep handy, but this time I happened to have one of those plastic boxes of ready-to-go stock in the refrigerator)
  •     1 cup cream or half-and-half (or milk, if that’s what you’ve got)
  •     pinch of salt (if the stock you have on hand is of the low-sodium variety)
  •     dash of white pepper (or regular pepper, if you don’t have white pepper and don’t mind pepper flecks in your cream sauce)
  •     dash of nutmeg

Melt the butter in a largish frying pan.  Add the flour.  Stir it around over medium heat until blended; don’t let it get brown.
Add the chicken stock gradually, stirring to keep the mixture from getting lumpy.
Add the dairy liquid, and keep on stirring.
Add the salt, pepper, and nutmeg.
When the mixture starts to thicken, it’s ready to go.  (If you have to give it a scrape to keep it from sticking to the bottom of the pan, it’s thickened.)

The first things you do:

Cut the ham slices off the ham.  This job can be outsourced to somebody in the household who likes playing with knives, in return for letting them have some of the ham to eat right then.  (Your cats would love to help with this, but as yet — thankfully — they don’t have the necessary knife-wielding skills.)

Peel and slice all those potatoes.  You’re not as likely to be able to outsource this bit, unfortunately.

Make certain you’ve got the shredded cheese you remembered buying at the grocery store.  (If you don’t have the cheese, don’t fret.  The recipe is of sufficient goodness even without it.)  Also, do you have breadcrumbs?  If you don’t, you can make some right now in the food processor, if you’ve got a food processor — about 3 slices of bread should do the trick.

The next things you do:

Preheat the oven to 375 Fahrenheit and prep your 13×9 inch pan.  Grease it up with butter or Crisco, or use one of the cooking sprays, your choice.  Make sure you’ve got enough aluminum foil handy to cover the pan when the time comes.

Put your sliced potatoes in a layer (or a couple of overlapping layers, for best coverage) in the bottom of the 13×9 pan.  Put the sliced ham in a single layer on top of the potatoes.  Sprinkle the cup of shredded cheese on top of the ham.

Make the cream sauce, as described above.  When it’s thickened, pour it over the potatoes-ham-cheese layers.

And then:

Cover the 13×9 pan with aluminum foil.  (If it’s got its own lid, you don’t have to do this.)  Put the pan into the preheated oven and cook, covered, for an hour.


Remove the aluminum foil.  Sprinkle the dish with enough breadcrumbs to make a crust on top.  Put it back into the oven and cook uncovered for another 15-20 minutes, or until the breadcrumbs have gotten golden-brown and crispy.

And serve it forth.

(A further note:  The cream sauce recipe here is a good basic one, useful for making the creamed part of creamed onions, or for the gravy portion of biscuits-and-sausage-gravy (substituting fat from the cooked sausage for all or part of the butter), or for anything else that calls for a standard white sauce.)

Deadline Horror: The Looming

For lo, I have sworn a mighty oath (“Darn it!” I said) that I’ll get this book finished before my birthday.

At the moment, I’m relatively sane, because the book has not yet claimed squatter’s rights on the greater portion of my brain, and complete deadline tunnel vision has yet to set in.

I make no promises as to what my state of mind will be like by the time Thanksgiving rolls around, though.