Nostalgia Calling, However Briefly

Every once in a while, I run across something that makes me wish for a moment that I’d stayed in Academia.† Like this call for papers:

Inside Out: Dress and Identity in the Middle Ages, the 38th Annual Conference at Fordham University’s Center for Medieval Studies.

Not that I’d have anything to present — material culture was never my field — but my word, the papers should be fascinating.

Not often, though, or for very long. I got out at just about the same time as Academia started devouring its own young.

Summertime, and the Living Is Sneezy….

We’re now well into the time of hot, oppressive days and high pollen counts.  The cats, instead of sitting like little furry meatloafs with tails and paws neatly tucked in, are stretched out into longcats, and can be reliably used to find the spots with the best cooling cross-drafts.

Which are no good to the rest of us, because the cats own them.

Summer is not the most enjoyable time for doing work, but work nevertheless must be done (this is where I point, in a discreet parenthesis, to the “Editorial and Critique Services” link up at the top of the page), so I’ll leave you with a handful of links to amuse or interest you during the days when you’re not on vacation at the beach, or in a mountaintop cabin, or in a hermetically sealed and thoroughly air-conditioned hotel room, if such is your pleasure:

First, a clip of Jim Macdonald, my co-author, in his other role as a magician (complete with top hat!)

Next, a good (and funny) explanation of the context rules for the use of bad language, and a report on the discovery of the earliest known use of the f-word in written English.

And finally, a video demonstrating how to put on a set of late 14th-century armor.

Stay cool, and enjoy.


Winter Storm Stella came through here yesterday and last night, and left a foot or so of snow behind, a lot of which is going to have to be removed from our driveway.  I give thanks for the presence in the household of our younger son, who shovels the driveway so we don’t have to – though what we’ll do when he departs onto the next stage of his Life Journey™, I don’t know.  Buy a snow blower, probably, if we can afford one.

At least we didn’t lose power – or haven’t lost it so far, let’s not get cocky, here – which means that writing and editorial work can go on unhindered.

Obligatory writing reference:  If you’re from one of the parts of the world where hard winters and deep snow aren’t a thing, do your research before writing about it.  And don’t trust film and television for a second, unless maybe you’re watching a Weather Channel documentary or the like; TV and the movies regularly have people running around in deep snow wearing outfits that would get them killed in the real world.  To be, however reluctantly, fair to the visual-media people, your actual effective cold-weather garments are about as far from photogenic as it’s possible to get, and nobody wants to turn their high-priced talent into a bunch of down-filled-parka-clad clones – but we toilers of the written word don’t have that problem, or that excuse.

If you don’t live in cold-weather country, and need to write about it, consider visiting some cold weather, if you can.  (If you’ve got a local friend, pay attention to what they tell you about what not to do.  If you’re a stranger to the area, double-check with the locals you do interact with – the tourist bureau, the waitperson at the diner, the clerk at the 7-11 – and if they say, “I wouldn’t go out there today,” believe them and stay home.)  Failing that, read some Jack London (“To Build a Fire” is a classic for a reason), or some Laura Ingalls Wilder (The Hard Winter), and take a moment to listen to the ballad of Frozen Charlotte.

My Co-Author is Having Fun Again

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.)

Presented for Your Amusement

A bit of seasonal humor, from the archives of The Toast:  The Passive-Aggressive Guide to Book Gifting.  As always, read the comments, too; The Toast is one of the few sites on the net where doing so adds value to the experience, rather than making the reader despair of humanity.

Also, a research source:  The New York Public Library has put up a collection of digitized theatrical ephemera.  That hyperlink goes to an article about the collection; the actual archive is here.  They’ve got all sorts of stuff: programs, posters, correspondence, photos.

The Internet is Full of Nifty Stuff

On the days when it starts to feel like the internet is nothing but insult and outrage from wall to wall and floor to ceiling, it helps to go look at some of the other things.

For example:  here’s an informative post from Tumblr, giving workshop instructions on how, exactly to gird your loins (if you’re wearing long skirts, or a robe of some sort.)  Note that the process not only gets the material out of the way, but also provides certain crucial areas with extra padding.

This isn’t the same thing, by the way, as simply kilting up one’s skirt, which is a simpler process, involving tucking the extra fabric into one’s belt to shorten the garment.

And here’s a report on the recent RWA (Romance Writers of America) convention, including some very cogent remarks on the need for representation in romance.  Short version:  Romance is the genre of happy endings, and readers who aren’t cisgendered currently-able-bodied straight white women need books that say they’re just as entitled to happy endings as anybody else.

Finally, a couple of links that are pure catnip for a word nut like me: a compendium of the blogger’s own favorite posts from three years of All Things Linguistic, and a page from which you can buy a copy of Balþos Gadedeis Aþalhaidais in Sildaleikalanda – which is to say, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, newly translated into Gothic by the scholar David Alexander Carlton.

As Katta (the Cat) says to Aþalhaids (Alice), “Weis sijum her woda in allamma” – “We’re all mad here.”

Three Nifty Links and a Brief Reminder

Commas are important tools in the ongoing struggle for (and sometimes between) clarity and euphony – so important that it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that, even more than most punctuation marks, commas are pretty much a local-option kind of deal.  The conventions for comma usage vary from one language to another, as I learned to my sorrow back in the days when I was learning Old English and working with a lot of OE texts that had been edited by German scholars and therefore punctuated with German punctuation.  (It’s a mark of where I learned a particular language and how I mostly used it that my rudiments of German are mostly stuff like “The following forms appear only in the dative plural,” while my fragmentary Spanish runs mostly along the lines of “Do you have Tylenol in drops for infants?”)  Comma use also varies from one century to another, and from one writer to another – some writers prefer to deploy their commas strictly according to grammatical rule, whereas others prefer to use them according to the rhythm and the phrasing of the sentence.

Under the circumstances, it’s not surprising that some people take their commas very seriously indeed.

Over in another corner of the internet (the internet has many corners), Slate columnist Derrick Johnson strikes a blow against e-mail address snobbery when he explains why he still uses his AOL e-mail account.  (Hint: because it still works just fine.)

Meanwhile, for the folklore and folk music enthusiasts among us, here’s the Vaughn Williams Memorial Library.

And finally, the reminder:  the Dr. Doyle’s Editorial Services Springtime Seasonal Special closes at midnight this coming Saturday, April 11.

For Your Amusement

A trio of links, from the useful to the odd.

Table Scraps — a food history blog, with more blog links in the sidebar.  (Including one to Pass the Garum!, a blog about Roman cookery.)

Three-Panel Book Reviews, a webcomic that says entirely truthful and funny things about works of literature.  I especially liked the one about Jonathan Franzen, but they’re all good.

And finally, a performance of “Lord Barnard and Little Musgrave” (as “Little Matty Groves” was known before it crossed the Atlantic) sung in Esperanto.

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.)

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!”