The Iceberg Theory

It’s fairly common knowledge that most of an iceberg – seven-eighths is the usual number – is underwater, out of sight to all but the denizens of the deep.  What’s less common knowledge is that most of a piece of fiction is likewise out of sight to everyone but the author.

Case in point:  a short story Jim Macdonald and I finished not too long ago.  Before I could do my part of the work on it, I ended up researching everything from the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 to early-twentieth century spiritualists in Denver, Colorado and using the results to construct an entire past history for a particular character.

And then I didn’t put any of it into the actual story, because none of it was stuff that the readers needed to know.  It was stuff I needed to know, which is a different thing.

This is also one of the ways that a short story can differ from a novel.  If we’d been writing a novel using the same general theme and ideas, all of that character history might have become a major plot thread.  This is because a novel can do more than one thing at a time (which is why writing a novel sometimes feels like trying to juggle jellyfish) but a short story only has the room and the time to do one thing, and whatever isn’t directly relevant to that one thing needs to be uprooted without mercy.  If you can’t uproot it without destroying the entire structure in the process, you probably don’t have a short story at all.

(If it isn’t a short story, but you’re certain in your heart and in your bones that it isn’t a novel, then you’ve probably got a novella on your hands, and an entirely different set of writing problems.  But that’s a post for another time.)

This One Brings Up Some Interesting Ideas

A blog post over here, by author Erica Smith, about the ever-present tension in historical fiction/historical romance writing between historical accuracy and reader entertainment.  Do follow the outbound links; they lead to yet more discussion and commentary by other writers in the field.

It’s an ongoing matter of contention, apparently, and (to my eye, at least) yet another angle on an old argument.  Classical tabletop wargamers used to (and for all I know, still do) debate for hours about the relative virtues of simulation and playability – the more accurate the simulation in a particular scenario, the less evenly-balanced the game.  Likewise, back in the days when I was active in the Society for Creative Anachronism, the “fun versus authenticity” debates were a staple of the local discourse.

I’m a big fan of fun and playability, as a general rule (otherwise, I’d never have been able to watch the historical flashbacks in Buffy and Angel with a straight face); but I’m also a fan of historical fiction and romance played according to the strict rules of the game, which includes taking into account the fact that people in the past were not men and women just like us only in funny costumes.

I suppose it’s kind of liking both authentic, straight-from-the-source Italian cooking and the spaghetti-and-meatballs your born-and-raised-in-the-heart-of-Texas mother used to make at home.  Which one you want on a particular day depends a lot upon how you feel at the time . . . and they’re both of them good, too, just as long as you remember that they’re not the same thing.

Another Nifty Digital Archive

Because the past is another country, but sometimes you can visit it through pictures:

The CARLI Digital Collection, “established in 2006 as a repository for digital content created by member libraries of the Consortium of Academic and Research Libraries in Illinois (CARLI) or purchased by the consortium for use by its members.”

You can find all sorts of stuff in there, from a photo of the 1908 Pinckneyville Fire Department to a shot of the interior of the Voss Brothers Bicycle Shop in Peoria, Illinois, circa 1920.  They’ve also got Civil War era letter collections, an archive of material dealing with the 1933-34 Chicago World’s Fair. a collection of plans and drawings for Pullman passenger cars, and lots and lots of campus newsletters and alumni magazines.

It’s the sort of place you can wander around in for hours.

Summer Daze

I haven’t been around here as much as I should have been this month, for which I blame late-summer lethargy.  By way of amends, here’s a nifty research site:  a page with links to digitized medieval manuscript collections on-line.  When I think about how much I would have loved a resource like this back in my grad student days . . . I envy the scholars of today, who have all this technology at their fingertips.

Also:  a web site dedicated to the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, with photos and contemporary accounts and price lists for things like food and lodging and various attractions.  (A double room with bath was $10/day at the Palmer House Hotel; or you could make do with the YMCA for $1/day if you were doing the Fair on the cheap.)

And just for giggles:  The Periodic Table of Storytelling.

A Useful Tool

Someday, you’re going to be writing a story where you really, honestly need to know the time of sunrise, sunset, or twilight on a particular day in a particular place.

Maybe you’re writing historical fiction, and need to know whether your characters are going to have enough light left in the day to do whatever it is you want them to do.

Maybe you’re writing fantasy or horror, and need to know when your creepy-crawlies can emerge from their coffins or lairs or shadowy pits and go forth to rule the night.

If so, then the U.S. Naval Observatory has a web page for you.

The web page speaks of “civil twilight,” defined as:

the limit at which twilight illumination is sufficient, under good weather conditions, for terrestrial objects to be clearly distinguished; at the beginning of morning civil twilight, or end of evening civil twilight, the horizon is clearly defined and the brightest stars are visible under good atmospheric conditions in the absence of moonlight or other illumination. In the morning before the beginning of civil twilight and in the evening after the end of civil twilight, artificial illumination is normally required to carry on ordinary outdoor activities.

This is the kind of twilight you’ll probably be concerned with.  There are two other, more specialized, twilights – nautical twilight is when “the illumination level is such that the horizon is still visible even on a Moonless night, allowing mariners to take reliable star sights for navigational purposes” and astronomical twilight is when “the center of the Sun is geometrically 18 degrees below the horizon.”  But unless your protagonist is a navigator or an astronomer – in which case you’ve got more research ahead of you than a quick web page check is going to handle — you probably won’t need either of those.

In the meantime, think good thoughts about the U. S. Navy, figuring these things out so writers don’t have to.

A Couple of Good Things

The first is a link to an IndieGoGo fundraiser for Hadley Rille Books, a small press specializing in speculative fiction and prioritizing “new voices from women and other historically marginalized points of view” since 2005. They’re raising funds for the expansion necessary to stay competitive in today’s commercial environment.

Rewards at various levels include e-books, hardcover novels, and e-book bundles, manuscript critiques and full-manuscripts edits, tuckerization in a novel by a Hadley Rille author, and more.

The second is a link to the on-line archives of Florilegium, the journal of the Canadian Society of Medievalists/Société canadienne des médiévistes, who now have the complete run of their back issues, dating from 1979 onwards, available in digital form.  Writers of fantasy and historical fiction set in actual or pseudo-medieval societies would probably have a good time prowling through the articles available.

As usual, the internet is full of wondrous things.  Go forth and enjoy.

A term from the sf/fantasy community, referring to the inclusion of a person, or the use of the person’s name, in a novel or story, usually as a complimentary in-joke. Opportunities for tuckerization are often offered as prizes in benefit auctions and the like. The term derives from the name of sf writer Wilson Tucker, who pioneered the practice.


A Handy Trick

Naming characters is always a hassle – I can’t get mine to settle properly in my head until they’ve been correctly bemonickered – and most writers have their favorite resources for the job.  Baby name books and web sites are always good, especially for tales set in contemporary consensus reality, and if your interest is more historical, sites like the Social Security Administration’s Popular Baby Names page will let you search for popular American names by decade going back as far as the 1880s.  I’m sure that other countries have similar resources; the SSA page just happens to be the one I know about firsthand.

If you’re writing science fiction or fantasy, though, you’ve got problems.  Good science-fictional names, if you’re going to put some thought into them, are part of the worldbuilding:  You have to make some complex calculations about the probable ethnic makeup of your future society, for example, and about possible changes in naming styles (the all-whitebread science-fictional future is, if not yet completely dead, definitely moribund, and a good thing, too; and while it’s not likely that we’re ever going to see a resurgence of multi-word Puritan-style virtue names of the Praise-God Barebones variety, there’s always the off-chance that some future society may produce dimpled tots named Respect-for-the-Rights-of-Others Herrera or Earth-is-not-the-Only-Planet Jones.)

But if you’re writing fantasy, at least of the pseudo-western-medieval variety, there’s at least one good cheap trick out there:   Grab a copy of Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, or Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, and steal from there.  Go right past all the too-familiar major characters, and head for the ranks of (sometimes literal) spear-carriers, of which there are a good plenty.  This will give you lots of names which look vaguely western-medieval without belonging to any specific name-hoard, and which can usually be sounded out and pronounced by the average reader.

Today’s Peeve

I thought for sure I’d mentioned this one before, but a quick search informs me that in fact, I haven’t:

People, be aware that you don’t “fire” arrows.  “Fire” is a term from gunpowder tech, and the days when the person in charge of making a bullet or other projectile come out of the business end of the weapon had to apply literal flame to the powder at the other end.

The proper verb for arrows is “loose” – as in, the arrow is set free from the drawn bowstring.

“Shoot” also works. The verb goes back to Anglo-Saxon scēotan, meaning “to shoot” (it was also applied to the action of throwing a spear, but mostly to bows and arrows – sceotend, literally “shooter”, usually referred to an archer.)  When firearms came along, the old verb carried over to the newest entry in the category of “weapons that work by propelling something through the air towards a target.”

But talking about “firing” arrows will lose you credibility points with every medieval-weaponry geek and archery purist out there – and there are more of them out there than you’d think.