Over on Jim Macdonald’s blog, a piece of original fiction, for the entertainment of our friends and readers.
The current political circus (although if it’s a circus, it’s rapidly turning into an old-style Roman one) has inspired him to take up the partisan cudgels on behalf of . . . the Whigs. No, not the Modern Whig party, and not the historical British Whig party, either. He’s cheering for the old-style American Whig party of the mid-nineteenth century, some of whose positions became more popular in retrospect than they were at the time, such as favoring Emancipation and opposing Indian Removal.
To that end, he has unearthed from the depths of the internet The National Clay Minstrel, and Frelinghuysen Melodist, for the Presidential Canvass of 1844. Being a collection of all the new popular Whig songs, and is amusing himself with providing annotations.
(Did you know that the symbolic animal for the Whigs was . . . the raccoon? I didn’t, until just now.)
Our audiobook for the drive down and back is The Count of Monte Cristo. Nineteenth-century doorstop novels make great road books, especially if you stick to the blood-and-thunder end of the spectrum. We’ve already gone through Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone and The Woman in White, both of which I can heartily recommend – among other things, Collins has a lot fewer female characters whom I want to slap silly than, say, Dickens does. I don’t think we’ll be trying anything by Hardy, or by Henry James, though; the blind malice of the universe and the delicate delineation of interior states aren’t exactly the best antidotes for highway hypnosis.
(Or maybe for some people they are. Everybody’s reaction to a work of literature is different, and is their own.)
Next up, after we’re done with Edmond Dantès and the gang, will be a handful of Welcome to Night Vale podcasts. After that . . . who knows? Maybe The Three Musketeers.
A handful of links – some older, some brand-new – from around the web:
Slate has put up an interactive, annotated on-line version of Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener”, for those of you who might want to read it. (My own attitude toward “Bartleby” is colored by the fact that I once had to teach it in a freshman English lit class, and the typical response to that story from the inevitable classroom wit is exactly what you think it would be.)
A cabinetmaker and scholar of historical furniture reports on a letter to the future found sealed away inside an 18th-century inlaid cabinet by the journeyman cabinetmaker who built the piece.
Maybe you have a friend with a garden that’s overproducing, and you get a surprise gift of a bag of zucchini and homegrown potatoes. You already know about making zucchini bread out of other people’s excess zucchini, but the potatoes deserve to have something good done to them before they go to waste, so you decide to make this;
Spinach and Bacon Potatoes
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1 large or 2 medium onions, chopped (when in doubt, err on the side of more onion, rather than less)
- 1/2 pound bacon, finely chopped (the original version called for pancetta, the which we do not have, up here in the wilds of the north country, but regular bacon works just fine so long as it isn’t maple-cured or something like that. I buy packages of bacon ends and pieces at the IGA, and they do just fine as ingredient-grade bacon.)
- 5 large potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced (throw in a couple extra if your potatoes are running small)
- 1 box of frozen chopped spinach, thawed and drained
- 4 cups shredded Mexican cheese blend (cheddar will also work)
- 1 pint heavy cream (or half and half, if you’re being economical with money or fat)
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Lightly grease a medium baking dish.
- Melt the butter in a skillet over medium heat, and sauté the onion and bacon until onion is tender and bacon is cooked through.
- Alternately layer the potato slices, the bacon and onion mixture, the spinach, and the cheese in the prepared baking dish.
- Pour the heavy cream evenly over everything.
- Cover and bake 1 hour in the preheated oven.
- Uncover, and continue baking 30 minutes, until bubbly and lightly browned.
The writing life can be like this sometimes, as well. You may be going along, working on the project or projects you currently have in hand, when your personal muse shows up with a basket full of ideas and says to you, “Here. I’m sure you can make something tasty out of these.”
Since it’s a bad idea to ignore gifts from your muse, even inconvenient ones, you’ll have to do something with all those fresh ingredients. Maybe they can go together to make something you can whip up in a hurry before getting back to your main projects – a quick short story stir fry, as it were. But maybe they’re better suited for something complex and long-simmering that you don’t have time for right now, so what else can you do?
Well, that’s where food preservation techniques real or virtual scrapbooks and idea files come in. Get that gift basket full of ideas safely frozen or pickled or salted down and stored in the root cellar, and come the cold midwinter of the mind, they’ll be waiting there to nourish you.
My husband and co-author James D. Macdonald got bored the other day – he’s also an EMT, and he was sitting around the ambulance HQ waiting for somebody in their area of operations to have chest pains or run their car into a tree, but nobody did – so he wrote this.
(This also explains why, in our collaborations, he’s usually the plot wrangler and I’m the prose wrangler. The secret to picking a good collaborator is locating one who thinks that the stuff you find difficult is actually easy, and vice versa.)
Come for the workshop; stay for the lighthouses, the luminescent jellyfish, and the really excellent seafood.
Also: I’m currently putting together the January issue of my newly-inaugurated newsletter. If you’re interested in receiving what should be a monthly e-mailing, you can sign up via the link in the sidebar, or click on it here.
Last night I dreamed I was at a science fiction convention, and was trying (as one does) to juggle prepping for my final panel of the con, packing up and checking out before the hotel deadline, and finding my co-author to make certain that he had all of his packing done so that I didn’t have to do it for him in a tearing hurry and risk losing something crucial.
Which would have made for a simple, if boring, dream, except for the point where I suddenly discovered that I had left all my clothes someplace else — as is usually the case with such dreams, my mind didn’t supply a further explanation, just bam! naked — and had to make my way back to my hotel room on the eleventh floor, and presumably to some new clothes, with nothing to preserve my modesty but a large crockpot which I was carrying in front of me like a shield.
No, my mind didn’t supply an explanation for the crockpot, either.
And did I mention the elevator was being wonky? It kept dropping me off at every floor but #11, no matter what button I pushed, including the floor which was full of actors and musicians rehearsing a musical based on the life of Theodore Roosevelt.
And while it may or may not say something about my subconscious, it definitely says something about my sense of priorities that during the whole dream, my main worry wasn’t the lack of clothes or the looming check-out time, but whether or not I had prepped adequately for that final panel.
To a lot of readers, literary symbolism is that thing in high school English class that the teacher went on and on about instead of talking about the story. Then some of them turn into writers, and come to the understanding that literary symbolism isn’t some sort of academic game of “Gotcha!” – it’s just another tool in the toolbox, a way of deepening and enriching the theme of the story without having to take the reader’s attention away from the plot and the setting and the characters.
Sometimes the gun over the mantelpiece literally goes off in the third act. And sometimes the gun over the mantelpiece is there to keep the reader aware of something else in the story that goes off in the third act instead. That second gun is a symbol.
There are two sorts of symbols. One sort consists of symbols drawn from several thousand years of human culture – mostly Western culture, for reasons having to do with imperialism, colonialism, the established literary and artistic canon as set forth in freshman-year survey classes, and the fact that if you’re reading this blog, then English is at least one of your secondary languages. The other sort are drawn from the writer’s own mind and are hand-made on purpose for a particular project: the billboard with the picture of the eyeglasses in The Great Gatsby, the scent of honeysuckle in The Sound and the Fury.
The primary risk involved in deploying the first sort of symbol is that of misunderstanding. The audience for our work grows more global every day, and there is no guarantee that the reader’s load of cultural baggage is the same as the one the writer brought to the story. There’s no telling what references are going to leave a non-native-English-speaker in a position similar to that of a college freshman somewhere in Iowa struggling with Crime and Punishment in translation, and having to rely on the introduction and the footnotes to make sense of the social implications of all those first names, last names, patronymics, and multiple layers of nicknames, and who calls who what when.
A secondary risk associated with the use of established cultural symbols is that they can change meaning over time, or across distance, and the world is not always kind enough to post warnings when you’re going over one of those borders. A fairly dramatic case in point, of course, is the swastika, which prior to the 1930s was known in a number of world traditions as a good-luck symbol – Kipling employed it in his bookplates and on the bindings of his books until 1935, as an homage to his roots in British India, for example; it also appears in prehistoric petroglyphs (drawings and symbols on rock) in the North American Southwest. By the end of the second World War, however, the former good-luck symbol had acquired such a burden of negative association that it has been effectively desecrated for good in the minds of Western audiences. A writer coming from one of the world traditions where the swastika has retained a good portion of its former meaning is going to have a hard time making a case for its use, no matter how benign their intent may be.
For the second sort of symbol – the handmade-for-the-occasion kind – the primary risk is that of obscurity. Even a reader from the same time and place as the writer is not going to have access to the inside of the writer’s head, or to the writer’s private stock of significant images. The writer has to work the meaning of the symbol into the very story whose meaning the symbol is intended to explicate or reinforce, which is a task not much different from crossing a deep ravine by means of a bridge which you’re building beneath you as you go across. The fact that writers do it all the time, and that readers get the intended meaning more often than not (even if they don’t have the critical vocabulary to explicate it later), is in fact a tribute to the collective intelligence of all of us, writers and readers alike.
I don’t have any words of wisdom about secret techniques for making this part of the writing job any easier . . . just an acknowledgement that it really is hard work, and full of pitfalls and unexploded land mines, but that it’s one of the things that, if you carry it off, will give your story that sense of extra layers beneath the surface which can lift it above the other submissions in an editor’s stack.