From the Good Folks at the OED

Some interesting blog posts about words and related trivia:

There’s one about champagne (did you know that the big 30-liter bottle is called a Melchizedek?) and another about spies (or intelligence officers, as some of them prefer to be called.)

Or have a peevish post on reflexive pronouns (I like this one, myself.)  Or one about OED citations from film scripts and transcripts (the latter for words which appear in ad-libbed dialogue, rather than in the written script.)

Then there’s this one, on the difficulty of translating book titles (Mockingjay gets translated into Spanish with a similar bird-name portmanteau word, Sinsajo, but the German translator opted for Flammender Zorn, “Flaming Fury.”)  Or this one, on German idioms (eine Extrawurst verlangen, “to ask for an extra sausage,” means “to expect special treatment.”)

I could mess around on that site all day.

Peeve of the Day

Listen up, people.

A tic is a small involuntary or habitual motion:  Only the nervous tic in his left eyelid betrayed his agitation.

A tick is a bloodsucking arachnid:  After his walk in the woods, he found a deer tick just above the top edge of his right sock.

They mean two different things, and they have two different spellings.

Got it?


More Thought for Food

After spending most of the morning hunched over my computer like a vulture, feeling out of sorts with the world, I wandered into the kitchen and asked myself, “Self, what do you want for lunch?”

And Self replied, upon consideration, “You know, what I would really like right now is some tomato soup.”

Normally, under such circumstances, I would inform myself, sternly, that we have no canned or otherwise packaged soup in the house, so that idea was right out. This time, however, Self was quick to add that we had canned diced tomatoes, an immersion blender, and a microwave right there, and the rest should follow easily from that point.

“Self,” I said, “you’ve got something.”

So I took a can of diced tomatoes, and a can of light coconut milk, and some dried minced garlic and some cumin and some Tabasco and a bit of salt and pepper, and I whirled them together with the blender until they were smooth. And then I added some tomato paste from the tube in the refrigerator, to make the end product a bit less pink and add a bit more tomato kick without having to add another whole can of tomatoes, and whirled it again.

Then I microwaved the final product until it was hot, and it was good.

Links to the Past

Writers of historical or alt-historical fiction are always in search of pictorial references for people and places of times past.  Still pictures are good (and for most of history, they’re all that we have), but for over a century now we’ve had moving pictures, as well – and the internet, bless its digital heart, preserves them and displays them for us at our command.

Herewith, a trio of links:

London street scenes, 1927, in color:

Street scenes from Berlin and Munich, circa 1900-1914, also in color:

Driving around New York, 1928.  This one’s in black and white, and is a staged comedy short, but the backgrounds are the real thing.  (And it’s amazing how long some of the visual high-speed automotive tropes we’re still seeing in film and television have been kicking around.):

I love the internet.

Thinking About Anthologies

Anthologies, especially in genre fiction, cycle in and out of fashion.  At the time when my coauthor and I started writing professionally, they were at the start of a boom phase – our first sale was to the YA anthology Werewolves, edited by Jane Yolen and Martin Greenberg, and we had other anthology sales afterward.  As usually happens, though, there came a time when so many anthologies were being published that reader fatigue set in, and then for another decade or so hardly anybody edited original anthologies any more.  Now anthologies are coming back in again, and once again we’re selling an occasional short story (we’re novelists; all our short stories are occasional) to those markets.

Setting aside reprint anthologies, which are a different creature, anthologies come in two basic flavors: general and themed.  A general anthology is inclusive in its scope – its guidelines don’t get much more restrictive than, say, “original science fiction under 10,000 words.”  A themed anthology can be as specific as the editor desires:  “hard science fiction between 500-1000 words about broccoli,” or “fantasy novellas or long short stories on feminist themes with an emphasis on nontraditional magic systems.”  Themed anthologies can, paradoxically, be a lot easier to write for and sell to than the more open-ended ones. Either you’re the sort of writer for whom 500 words of hard sf focusing on broccoli come naturally to mind, or you’re not – and if you’re not you already know better than to try.

The other two main flavors of anthology are the open anthologies and the closed, or invitational, anthologies.  For an open anthology, the editor basically puts up a sign saying “SF Stories About Broccoli Wanted – Apply Within,” and then reads every manuscript that the mailman or the internet brings to him or her and rejects most of them.  This is, not surprisingly, a lot of work, and rejecting that many stories can get depressing, so most anthologies are put together from a list of invited authors, or from market listings in a restricted number of venues.

How to get into such an anthology?  Well, the usual way is to write a good enough story . . . but before you can do that, you have to know where to send it, and the trick to that is to be in the sort of places where word about such things gets spread about.  This is one of the reasons for the existence of professional writers’ mailing lists and on-line forums, and also one of the reasons why writers go to parties at conventions, or hang out in the bar, or talk to other writers at signing sessions or in the dealer’s room.  Because if you’re there, and you hear word of an anthology that’s opening up, then you’re in a position to write to the editor and say words to the effect of, “I understand that you’re going to be editing an anthology of hard sf flash fiction about broccoli, and I was wondering if I could submit a story to it.”

Maybe it won’t work; maybe you’ll get a polite brush-off along the lines of “I’d love to see something from you, but unfortunately all the slots are already filled.”  But you’re just as likely to get a “Sure, why not?” – and at that point, you’ve just been invited to apply.  And while a sale is never guaranteed, you’ll be part of a much much smaller slushpile than the ever-increasing paper and digital stacks of submitted manuscripts over at Rivetty SF.

The next step:  working your way up from “and others” to a name on the cover.

Sub-Zero Protocols are in Effect

It’s ten degrees below zero on the Fahrenheit scale, and we have a wind chill warning in effect until noon tomorrow.

In weather like this, the only way to keep working is to make one room of the house as close to habitable as can be achieved (when the answer to “how warm can you get a nine-room house with a full basement in deep snow country?” is “never quite warm enough”) and stay there as much of the time as possible.

The cats, helpful creatures that they are, have taken to augmenting the office heat by imposing their bulk between us and our computer keyboards.  It is a measure of the ambient chill that we mostly are letting them do it.

Nevertheless, the work goes on.

Arisia Upcoming

This coming weekend is the Arisia science fiction convention in Boston.  Arisia is one of the two big winter conventions we attend, the other being Boskone.  Arisia is large and lively and skews more toward non-print sf/fantasy than does Boskone, which is smaller and more book-oriented (though it was quite the lively con itself, in its younger days); we enjoy both of them for different reasons, not entirely having to do with the chance to get out of town for a few days in cabin fever season.

(When I start humming Stan Rogers’s Canol Road – probably the ultimate cabin fever song – under my breath, I know that the walls are starting to close in.)

Anyhow, my schedule this year:

Military SF: When Diplomacy Fails     Faneuil   Fri 10:00 PM     Duration: 01:15
      Military SF has been around quite a while, starting with the works of authors such as Piper and Heinlein and continuing to this day with works by authors like Weber, Drake, and Ringo. What is the current state of military SF? How is it defined these days? What about anti-war stories that use the trappings of military SF like Haldeman’s The Forever War? Is there a unifying political viewpoint among the different authors?

Autograph – Doyle, Hunt, & Kelner     Galleria – Autograph Space Sat 10:00 AM     Duration: 01:15
      Autograph session with Debra Doyle, Walter Hunt, and Toni L.P. Kelner.

In Search of Conflict     Bullfinch  Sat 11:30 AM     Duration: 01:15
      As writers, how do you create conflict? Not just between a protagonist and antagonist but between friends, family, nations, and even within the main character themselves? Is overt conflict, such as a physical confrontation or threat, better than an internal character struggle for some stories? There are myriad ways of showing conflict other than someone throwing a punch, what are they?

Reading: Doyle, Macdonald, and Nelson     Hale     Writing           Sun 10:00 AM     Duration: 01:15
      Authors Debra Doyle, James Macdonald, and Resa Nelson read selections from their works.

And once again, Jim Macdonald and I have the 10AM Sunday reading slot.  If you’re at Arisia and awake at that hour, do consider stopping by.  We’re going to be reading a new short story from the adventures of Peter Crossman, hard-boiled Knight Templar.


Writers have always tended to have a complicated relationship with the tools they use to write.  Some of them praise the fluid ease of writing in a fresh bound notebook with a high-quality fountain pen; others insist that only #2 pencils and a legal pad will do.  (Lord Dunsany allegedly wrote his stories with a peacock-feather quill pen, but he was the 18th Baron Dunsany and could get away with such things.)

Other writers love new tech.  Mark Twain was an early adopter of the typewriter, for example.  For a while in the mid-twentieth century, composing directly on the typewriter, instead of just using it to make a fair copy for submission, nevertheless had a faintly non-literary smell – an aroma of hackwork, as it were — in the noses of sensitive readers and critics.

Then along came dedicated word processors, followed shortly by word processing programs running on personal computers, and the people who had been looking down on typewriters switched to looking down on word processors and waxing nostalgic about their old muscle-powered Remingtons and Underwoods.

And so it goes, and keeps on going.  Even among the computerati, there are writers who eagerly embrace each new development (Google Docs!  Scrivener!) and others who lovingly maintain a vintage PC for the express purpose of running their copy of WordStar or Leading Edge.

Which is all taking the long way around to saying that I’m composing this blog post using Microsoft Live Writer for the first time, and if anything about it looks strange or funky or unexpected . . . well, you’ll know why.

Buried Treasure!

Buried in a museum, in this case, but treasure just the same.  A lump of “organic material” from a 19th-century archeological dig in Norway had been kicking around the storerooms of the British Museum for over a century before one of the curators noticed a bit of metal sticking out and decided to have the whole thing x-rayed.

His hunch paid off.  Inside the lump of material was a Celtic brooch dating from the eighth or ninth century — six centimeters in diameter, gilded, and decorated with interlaced knotwork patterns.

The whole story, with a picture of the brooch in question, can be found here.

(Obligatory writing reference:  Sometimes it pays to look more closely at the weird lumps of old or unpromising story-stuff that are kicking around your head.  There may be something valuable hidden inside.)

Backward, Turn Backward

If you’re a long-form writer with a number of stories set in the same fictional milieu, the odds are that at some point or other you’re going to find yourself writing a prequel. (I don’t think the term counts as a neologism any longer, since at least two respected on-line dictionaries vouch for its existence since at least 1972, or possibly as early as 1958.) Writing primarily short stories isn’t going to get you out from under this particular Sword of Damocles, either, since at some point you may be inspired — or be offered money, which often comes to the same thing — to expand a short story or series of short stories into a novel, or to write an origin story for one of your characters.

At which point you will find yourself engaged in one of the more masochistic pleasures of the writing life, that of retrofitting a backstory.

The big challenge in writing a prequel lies in the necessity of keeping your plot consistent with what’s been said or implied in the existing material, while at the same time writing a story that’s interesting on its own — the latter being, in my opinion, the more important job of the two. Not surprisingly (this is a blog about writing, after all) I have some thoughts about how to go about it.

Thought one: Writing a prequel is, in some ways, like taking off on a road trip with a certain number of must-hit way-points that you can’t ignore, even if your start point and your final destination are left to your discretion. When my co-author and I wrote The Gathering Flame, our prequel novel in the Mageworlds universe, there were really only a handful of such points: a couple of political agreements, two or three military engagements and a couple of daring space exploits, and the birth dates of a couple of children whose relative ages and birth order had been set in the original trilogy. (And it was the kids who gave me the most trouble, believe it or not.  The family setup in the trilogy had been established for effective storytelling in the context of those books; for the prequel, I had to go back in time and figure out not just how but why things had worked out that way, in a fictional milieu where “oops!” was a less-than-believable explanation for such things.)

So when you’re contemplating a prequel, it helps to make a list before you start of what your known past facts and must-hit way-points actually are.

Thought two: Not all of your known past facts and way-points are going to be of equal importance. Some of them, in fact, you may have to jettison or flat-out contradict for the sake of creating an effective story this time around. Yes, if you do that, you will probably get letters from readers pointing out your mistakes. Console yourself, in that case, with the thought that you’ve got readers who are paying close enough attention to what you’re saying that they can catch such things. Or you can point out to them that even in contemporary consensus reality, not everything comes with a completely known and consistent backstory, that “exactly what happened” is something that journalists and historians struggle with every day and don’t always come up with definitive answers, and that the bits and pieces of our lives don’t always match up tidily at the edges.

Or, as one of our own fictional characters said, in the (utterly invented, because we made it — and him — up) epigraph to The Gathering Flame: “What you have to realize, son, is that almost all of the people who were there at the time are dead. And everybody who’s still alive is lying to you about something.”

That would be the on-line OED citation, which alas I cannot verify without purchasing a subscription.