Archive for March, 2012

TT: Indigenous Roots

March 29, 2012

If you’re looking for the Wednesday Wandering, just page back one and join in the discussion of the art of Melissa Zink and the question of what the physical book means to you.  Then come back and join me and Alan as we venture into the roots of place names.

Acoma Pueblo

JANE: We were venturing into the territory of the exotic names attached to our landscapes that connect us to the indigenous peoples who lived here before us and – in places like New Zealand and New Mexico – still live with us.

Alan, you’ve already given an example in the place of the man with the big knees and the nose flute, but do you have another?

ALAN: Yes I do – but first I need to digress slightly and explain a bit of background. In New Zealand the Maori language is ubiquitous. All the tribes spoke the same language and had a common culture. That influence remains very strong and so Maori names for places are used all the time all over the country, though they may sound a little odd to foreign ears. My favourite is Wanganui (that’s pronounced “one-gu-noo-ee”). A local TV comedy programme used to have a segment they called “The Deliberate Mispronunciation Of Maori” and they mangled that into “wan-gan-you-eye”, which I found quite hilarious! Even my Maori friends laughed at it.

JANE: I’d like to start with a place I talked about in my Wednesday Wandering for 10-27-10 – Acoma Pueblo.   “Acoma” falls into the relatively mundane name category.  It translates from its original Keresan as “people of the white rock.”   In earlier texts, Acoma is refereed to as “Ahacus” and later “Acuco,” which shows how often words are transliterated differently by different listeners.

Showing that names are subject to change, Acoma has picked up a modern nickname – “Sky City” – which celebrates its elevated location.

That’s just one name, from one language group.  Here in the American Southwest, we’re blessed with a great number of tribes, each with their own languages.  We have Navajo, Apache, Zuni, and Hopi.  Although they’re frequently lumped together, the various “Pueblo” groups speak languages that fall into several distinct groups: Tiwa, Tewa, Towa, and Keresan.

ALAN: Ah! You’ve already arrived at the place I was heading to.  In Australia, the situation was quite similar to what you have in New Mexico.

The Aboriginal tribes did not have a common culture and there were literally hundreds of mutually incomprehensible languages. Nevertheless, Australia still uses many Aboriginal place names which sound somewhat exotic to our ears and which, because of the different languages, also seem quite dissimilar to each other.

For example, Western Australia is mostly desert, so water is obviously very important. In one Aboriginal language the “oo” suffix means “by water” and so we have towns called Wanneroo and Innaloo. Another Aboriginal language in the same area uses the “up” suffix in a similar context, hence  Joondalup and Karrinyup. Those two tribes lived close together and neither could speak the other’s language. But their heritage remains.

JANE: Ah, hah!  I see now why in his novel The Last Continent Terry Pratchett named that one town “Buggerup”  and why, despite the obvious joke, the name seemed to fit so nicely into Australian naming structures.

ALAN: I seem to recall that he also had a place called “Didjabringabeeralong” which also seems to fit nicely into this structure but which is, of course, a reference to something else entirely! Pratchett is a very clever man.

Sometimes the sense of history associated with the names used by various indigenous people also shows that no matter how different our cultures are, we all have a shared sense of place and values. This can lead to surprising resonances. For example I once stumbled upon a small, out of the way cottage by the coast in the far north of New Zealand. It had a nameplate attached: “Wharemoana.”  That translates as House (“Whare”)  of (or by) the sea (“moana”). In other words, prosaically, Seahouse or, stretching it a little bit, Seahouses. And the reason that resonated with me is that my father’s side of the family comes from a town in Northumberland in the north of England which is called Seahouses. Suddenly I felt at home even though I was on the far side of the world.

JANE: I may be a sentimentalist, but that actually made me tear up.  It’s wonderful you found a piece of home away from home.  I suspect this is the very impulse that leads to so many colonial places being named “New” something – a desire to feel you’ve brought a bit of  home to your new home.

ALAN: And New Zealand is the perfect example of that. Zealand (or more accurately Zeeland) is an area of Holland and I assume that’s where the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman came from. He was  the first European to see New Zealand, though he didn’t land, he just sailed on by.

JANE: This question of  names and what they mean to those who live on the landscape  brings me to a change I’ve seen happening during the time I’ve lived in the Southwest – the reclaiming by indigenous peoples of the names they gave to their landscape.  It’s a complex topic, though,  so I’d like to save for next week.


Zink Makes Me Think

March 28, 2012

The artwork caught my eye first, a diorama featuring several miniature samurai helmets on an irregularly shaped platform hanging from a wall in a gallery in the

The Writing On The Wall

Albuquerque Museum.   When I went to read the title (“Spectacular Helmet” by Melissa Zink), the quotation included on the tag drove everything else out of my mind.

“Its like you’re walking around with this enormous suitcase full of magic and you are never allowed to open it, because the rules say that the things in that suitcase are not worthy of artistic consideration. Worlds, childhood memories, pretend, fantasy, archaeology—all that. And so, until I could open that suitcase, I really didn’t have anything to work with. It was like trying to paint with your hands tied behind your back.”  Melissa Zink.

These words thrilled and excited me – so much so that they brought tears to my eyes.  Although  up to that time Jim, our friend Michael Wester, and I  had been having a lively discussion of both the art we were viewing and whether or not we thought the captions and titles did the art justice, I found myself  reluctant to comment.  Then Michael said something like, “That’s a really amazing statement.”

I was astonished.  I’d thought the words meant so much to me because I was a writer who had her own “enormous suitcase full of magic” and regularly delved into it – despite my awareness that, in the academic world in which I did my education, “the things in that suitcase are not worthy of artistic consideration.”  However, here was Michael – a professional mathematician – finding himself moved by those words as well.  Now, admittedly, Michael is an eclectic personality, interested in far more than mathematics, but his statement made me wonder how many of us carry around private suitcases that we’re apprehensive about opening in public lest the contents be deemed unworthy of consideration.

I decided then and there that we needed a copy of the quotation.  I was about to hand copy it, but one of the guys suggested that maybe we could photograph it.  Since photography was forbidden in the museum, I hurried off and found the gallery guard.  My words tumbling over each other, I explained what we’d like to do.  He smiled, genuinely delighted by our enthusiasm and said, “You like Zink?   Let me come over and you can take your picture.”

We did.  Later Jim transcribed the quote and I sent Michael  a copy.  That might have been the end of it except that, a week or so later, when I was at the library researching something else entirely, I came across a book about Melissa Zink’s art.  It was titled The Language of Enchantment and written by Hollis Walker, a gallery owner who had loved Melissa Zink’s work since she first encountered it in 1978 and who had represented Zink since 1993.

As I read Walker’s introduction, once again I was chilled down to my soul: “The principle source of Zink’s inspiration has been books.  She’s passionate about them, down to the way they smell, everything that contributes to what she thinks of as the ‘book experience,’ and the expression of that passion has been the central concern of her career.”

I turned the pages, looking at the photographs of Zink’s art, feeling rather like Alice gazing through the looking glass into a world that belonged to someone else but nonetheless was deeply familiar.  I loved the narrative dioramas from the series “The (almost) True-To-Life Adventures of Gypsy Dog and Hattie Macwilliam in Darkest Artland.”  Later in her career, Zink moved from these dioramas to “wall-hung pieces with two-dimensional aspects” such as the piece that had caught my eye in the Albuquerque Museum.  Later still, she tightened her focus down to letters and words, creating unique alphabets or illustrating a single word.  No matter how abstract the work became, the sense of story remained.

Most of  Zink’s works were small but, when she tried her hand at works on a larger scale,  the written word remained her inspiration.  Her “Guardians” were “The Minister of Words,” “Chamberlain of Letters,” and “Book Warden.”  Walker’s book showed Zink impishly peeking out from behind the three tall bronze figures, their androgynous heads set atop flattened bodies made from text.

Looking at Zink’s work, I found myself understanding afresh why books I can hold in my hand mean so much to me.  Her generosity in sharing her suitcase of ideas brought home to  me how a book, a word, a letter, are all more than merely mediums for the translation of ideas.  The written word, the printed word, the smell of paper and ink, take me somewhere.  There is a magical experience in the act of reading, what Zink herself called “a trance state.”

I don’t think it’s coincidental that for many people this sense of magic is tied to the physical book.  A good friend of mine was given an e-book device for Christmas.  A dedicated reader, she found this quick and easy way of getting  stories to read – without even having to leave the house or wait for something to be shipped to her – surprisingly addictive.  However, she’s also commented that, if she really loves a book, she buys a physical copy.  Holding the book makes it somehow more “hers.”

How about you?  How do you feel about physical books?  About the book experience?  Are words to read enough or do you, like Melissa Zink, feel there is something to the book itself?

TT: Prosaic Gateways

March 22, 2012

If you’re looking for the Wednesday Wandering, just page back for an announcement about Wolf Fest 2012 – and a really cool wolf photo!  Then come and join me and Alan for a look at a very unusual gateway into a strange and wonderful addiction.

JANE: Well, Alan, we’ve been talking about place names and how they can be

Incarnations of a Resource

gateways into the history and legends of a place.   The funny thing is that, to me, the “prosaic” names are as much a gateway to the mind set of the people who gave the name as the more exotic ones are.

Alan, you were talking about prosaic names.  Can you give another example?

ALAN: No worries!  In the far north of New Zealand there’s a place called the Bay Of Islands – it’s a bay; it has islands in it. What else would you expect? Robin and I stayed there once. Round the corner from our hotel was a pub called The Pub Round The Corner.

About five minutes drive from the place we were staying is a beautiful beach with lazy waves. It’s just perfect for swimming or for simply sitting in the sun. The beach is quite long; it’s called Long Beach. Your turn!

JANE: Your mention of  Long Beach reminds me of how confused I was when I went to college and heard people talk about a place called “Lawn Guyland.”  Everyone spoke about this as if it was a place I should be as familiar with as I was with  New York City.  Then, one day I realized I did know what they were talking about.  Lawn Guyland was  Long Island. (This is a long island off the coast of New York; it includes part of New York City.)  I wonder if we weren’t already a culture with a written language if the original meaning would have been lost to the dialect pronunciation.

Your turn…

ALAN: Not too far away from Long Beach is a flagstaff on top of a hill called Flagstaff Hill. You drive up Flagstaff Road to get to it. There’s a church in the middle of Church Street.  Ferries run regularly across the bay to a small town called Paihia. One ferry is painted blue; it’s called The Blue Ferry. One ferry is painted white; it’s called The White Ferry. And one ferry is painted red. It’s much faster than the other two and so it’s called The Fast Ferry.

Paihia has a mall with 24 shops in it. It’s called The 24 Shop Mall. There’s a licensed restaurant with a name that cannot be read for the sign outside is written in such a distorted script as to be completely illegible. Possibly the real name of the restaurant is The Illegible Licensed Restaurant, but I’ll never know.   Your turn!

JANE: Okay…  First, I’ve got to stop laughing…  There, managed.   Barely…

Especially where it was settled by English speakers, New Mexico has its share of prosaic place names:  Cedar Crest, Red River, Grasshopper Canyon, Alkali Lake.

However, often these hint at the humor the pioneers brought with them – or their aspirations for the future.    One of my favorites of these is a town currently called Hope.  It’s original name was Badgerville or Badger, because the residents lived in dugouts, “like badgers.”
Later, when a post office was located there (this was a sign of becoming a “real” settlement), a new name was needed.  “Hope” was chosen, based either on a coin toss or on the “hopes” that the local storekeeper would make more money.  Either way, there’s a great deal of history in that simple name.

(My source for this story is the fascinating book The Place Names of New Mexico by Robert Julyan.  Despite its lacking an index and having a rather quirky alphabetizing structure, I highly recommend the book for browsing.)

So even a name that seems pretty ordinary  might hide a good story, just as  many exotic names when translated prove to be just as prosaic as “Long Island.”   We both live in areas where the traditions of indigenous peoples remain.  I’d love to take a look at the “exotic” names they’ve left on our landscape and see what they tell us.  Next time…

Wolf Fest 2012

March 21, 2012

This coming Friday (March 23), I’m attending an event I’m really looking

I Talk with a Wolf

forward to.  Wolf Fest 2012 will be held on the University of New Mexico campus: on Smith Plaza and in the Dominguez Courtyard near Zimmerman Library.

Q: What is Wolf Fest 2012?

A: Wolf Fest 2012 is a day-long festival being held with the purpose of raising awareness of the plight of the Mexican wolf.  It will feature booths from various groups interested in ecological and wild life issues, letter writing stations, and other events.  Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary (that’s one of their residents in the associated photo) will be attending with one of their wolf ambassadors, members of their knowledgeable staff, and a bunch of wolf-related gift and education items.

Q: Why is UNM hosting this event?

A: For one, the lobo (that’s Spanish for “wolf”) is the university mascot so it’s a perfect fit.

For another, various campus organizations, including the Biology Undergraduate Society, the Biology Graduate Student Associations, and the Wilderness Alliance of UNM were willing to put in a huge amount of work to set up the event.   They’re aware that the Mexican Wolf is in need of advocates who can provide informed and intelligent discussion as to why our wild places need wolves.

Q: No offense, Jane, but what the heck is a Fantasy Writer doing appearing as one of the speakers?

A: No offense taken!  Actually when I was first e-mailed my invitation, that’s exactly what I wrote to S.  Kevin McCormick (one of the organizers).   After all, the other invitations had gone out to science or ecological awareness groups such as Defenders of Wildlife, the Center for Biological Diversity, and the Albuquerque BioPark.

Kevin’s answer was eloquent and interesting enough that I’d like to paraphrase it.  He explained that Wolf Fest 2012 had been inspired in part by a talk he had enjoyed with Dave Parson.  Mr. Parson had explained how he could try to explain with facts and charts just how wolves were a necessary part of the ecosystem but that in the end: “a passionate plea of understanding would make all the difference.  I [Kevin] think introducing the community to your Blind Seer series would be of great help in that regard.”

Since I am indeed passionate about wolves and especially about how often wolves are misrepresented in fiction, folklore, and supposed fact, I am delighted to participate in Wolf Fest 2012 and help set the record straight.

Q: So, where will you be?  And when?

A: Weather permitting, I’ll be in the Dominguez Courtyard between 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 pm.

This courtyard is over near Zimmerman Library.  I’ll be there  along with the folks from Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary.  The organizers kindly arranged for this special area so that the ambassador wolf would not be overwhelmed by crowds.   Then they offered to include me, so I would have a more controlled environment in which I could talk with those who dropped by.   I was very happy to accept.  After all, this means I get to spend several hours with one of the wolves!

Q: I like wolves well enough, but what if I wanted to come and talk to you about writing or some of your non-“Blind Seer books”…   Is that, okay?

A: Absolutely.   The folks from UNM’s book store have ordered copies of my books for sale, so I’ll be there in my “writerly” as well as “wolf-fan” capacity.

I’d be very happy to answer any questions I can about writing, both as a craft and a business.  Please remember, no question is “dumb.”  During my very first book signing, I was able to reassure a budding novelist that he wasn’t expected to come up with cover art for his book.  The look of relief on his face permanently addicted me to answering questions about all aspects of writing.

I hope to see some of you there!

TT: Long and Winding Names

March 15, 2012

If you’re looking for the Wednesday Wandering, just page back to where I’m announcing why Legends Walking is now Changer’s Daughter.  Then come back and join me and Alan as we wander into the realm of the unspellable.  Oh?  Wonder why the picture of Saint Francis?   Take a look at last Thursday’s tangent.  The good saint gave his name to a lot of places.  (It’s also my favorite statue in Santa Fe.)

Saint Francis Talks With a Prairie Dog

ALAN: We were talking about long place names. Here in New Zealand we have a hill called:


which is (probably) the longest place name in the world.  The English translation of this Maori name is “The summit where Tamatea, the man with the big knees, the climber of mountains, the land-swallower who travelled about, played his nose flute to his loved one” which also makes my mind boggle a little bit! Big knees?

JANE: I have a feeling the blog program is going to have trouble spacing a word that long.

I wonder if this man got his big knees from climbing mountains?  Maybe it’s a reference to swollen joints and he was consuming edible clay as a cure?  That would cover “land swallowing.”

ALAN: I bet he had a tummy ache as big as the name after he swallowed it all!

There was a little snippet about this hill on the TV a few years ago. A reporter wrote the name down on a piece of paper and went round a group of people in a pub asking them to pronounce it. Everybody made a complete mess of it of course. Finally he approached a cool looking Maori guy who was hunched over his beer and paying no attention to what was going on. The reporter presented his piece of paper and asked the man to pronounce the name. The man glanced casually at the paper and said, “You spelled it wrong.” Then he returned to his beer and ignored the reporter again.

JANE: And had he spelled it wrong?

ALAN: Only the man with the big knees knows, and he’s not telling.

JANE: I’ve got a Spanish hill name for you that’s almost as good: Nuestra Senora del la Luz de las Lagunitas.”   The name translates as “Our Lady of the Light of the Little Lakes.”  This is the name of a volcanic plug in the valley of the Rio Puerco of the East (that is the Dirty or Muddy River of the East; there’s one in the west as well).

A now-deserted village in the area had the even more pretentious name of Nuestro Senora de la Luz San Fernando y San Blas.  Despite this appeal to the lights of both Saint Ferdinand and Saint Blais, the settlement failed.  Today even its precise location is uncertain.

ALAN: Of course, not all place names are necessarily exotic or full of hints about mysterious pasts and legends.

I was actually born and brought up in a small village in Yorkshire called Southowram. The suffix “Owram” (I was told at school) is Anglo-Saxon for “on the top of a hill” – so Southowram is the “village on the top of the hill to the south of the town” (the town being Halifax, of course). North of the town was another hill and it boasted a village called Northowram, that is  “the village on the top of the hill to the north of the town.”  Fortunately there were no hills to the East or West of the town…

This unimaginative naming scheme stood me in very good stead when I came to New Zealand which has the aptly named North Island to the North and the even more aptly named South Island to the South. In the north of the North Island, there’s a cape called North Cape. To the West and the East, New Zealand also has both a West Cape and an East Cape. It was clear to me that the European names of the various geographical features had all been assigned by a Yorkshireman – as indeed they had. The famous explorer Captain James Cook came from Whitby, which is a small suburb to the North of Wellington, so he didn’t have to travel very far to start naming things.

JANE: We have our share of practical names here, but sometimes even the practical hints at something fascinating that happened in the past. And that helps to give a sense of continuity, of roots that anchor the place into the world. It’s one of the techniques that an author can use to bring their fictional  places alive and it ties in quite neatly to my current fascination with world building, so let’s continue next time!

Legends Walking Transforms Into Changer’s Daughter

March 14, 2012

I’m thrilled to announce that the sequel to one of my most requested books is now

Changer and Changer's Daughter

available both in e-book formats and as a print on demand publication.  To my astonishment, many of the people who love Changer aren’t aware that there is a sequel.  Part of this is no doubt due to the radically different cover art approach and the title Avon insisted we use.

Although issued under the title Legends Walking, Changer’s Daughter was my original title.  In the introduction to this new edition, I discuss how the title came to be changed.  I also unveil some of the behind-the-scenes issues and interests that contributed to the book’s evolution.

The introduction is not the only new material included in Changer’s Daughter.  I’m also including the only (at least to this point) athanor short story.  “Witches’-broom, Apple Soon” was first published in 2004 in the anthology Faerie Tales, edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Russell Davis.  It’s a story of Shahrazad the coyote, Demetrios the faun, witches’-brooms and a woman who hunts them.  Over the years, the anthology has become increasingly hard to find, so I decided to reprint the story here.

There’s also a spiffy new cover designed by Pati Nagle.  There’s a funny story to go with the cover…  Initially, when we were looking at art, Pati sent me a series of nice but predictable coyote pictures.  Even without seeing them, you know what I mean: a stately standing coyote, a coyote howling, a coyote quizzically studying the photographer.  Nice, but not with the flare I’d been hoping for.  I asked Pati to surprise me and she certainly did!

Her second search came up with the magnificent snarling fellow who graces the front of Changer, but it was another photo that really startled me.  I’d been re-reading the manuscript of Changer’s Daughter in the process of preparing it for publication.  After viewing the second selection of photos Pati sent me, I e-mailed her: “You’ve just sent me a picture of the scene I was reading today!”  That photo became the cover of Changer’s Daughter.  I invite you to see if you can guess which scene I was reading at the time.

So, even if you already own Legends Walking, there’s lots here to make this book an appealing addition to your collection.

Changer’s Daughter is available both for Kindle and for Nook.  If you prefer a book to hold in your hands (my archaic preference) you can also buy the print-on-demand version from Create Space.

Welcome to reality!

TT: And The Name Goes On

March 8, 2012

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Just page back one and join me in looking at the question of detail — how to find what you need to know and maybe, just maybe, when enough is too much!  Then be sure to join me and Alan as we take a look at what names can tell about places.

ALAN: Last time you mentioned in passing that the full name of Santa Fe is


actually  La Villa Real de Santa Fe de San Francisco. Are long names like that common in your part of the world? And what, if any, is the connection to the city of San Francisco itself?

JANE: As far as I know, there is no connection to the famous San Francisco.  Maybe one of our California-based readers can fill you in on the source of that city’s name.

As for the long names, well, the Spanish did like to name in a fashion that left very little out.   The town of Trampas, up near Taos, is actually named “Santo Tomas Apostel Del Rio de las Trampas.”  A rough translation of this is “Saint Thomas the Apostle of the River of Traps.”

An even better example is Abiquiu.  This word is probably taken from a Tewa (local Indian tribe) word, but no one knows for sure.  However, never ones to leave well enough along, the Spanish combined this with a saint’s name.

The original village of Abiquiu was Santa Rosa de Lima de Abiquiu.  However, after an attack by Indians, the remaining locals asked if they could move and found another village, they named this one Santo Tomas Apostol de Abiquiu.  They tended to refer to their new home  simply as Abiquiu.  Thus, they made life simpler for themselves while confusing  generations of tourists.

You see, the famous painter Georgia O’Keefe’s Ghost Ranch is located near Abiquiu.  Tourists often want to get there, but they can’t figure out how to ask for directions.  We locals know Abiquiu is simply pronounced “Ab-i-q” and get to have fun when tourists struggle to pronounce it.  The most usual variation is something like “Ab-ee-qee-ee.”

ALAN: Gosh! Given how many words there are in those names and how long it takes to say them, I’m starting to wonder if the Spanish are descended from Ents!

The religious aspects of some of those names puts me in mind of Halifax in Yorkshire, where I was born. The word “Halifax” is popularly assumed to be a corruption of the phrase “Holy face” – a reference to John The Baptist whose face does indeed appear on the Halifax coat of arms. I’m not quite sure what his connection to a grimy industrial town in the North of England might be. Perhaps he used to visit for his summer holidays…

JANE: Or perhaps he was the patron saint of some important family in the area.  Less amusing, but more likely.

ALAN: When I was eighteen, I moved from Halifax to Nottingham, in the heart of Robin Hood country. That’s where I went to university. Did you know that Nottingham is a corruption of “Snotingehame” which means “the home of the family of Snot,” or perhaps “the town that Snot built”? The unfortunately named Snot was an Anglo-Saxon who settled in the area some time around 600 A.D. The Nottingham area is world famous for its lace industry. I always wondered if the steady production of high quality lace was a ploy to ensure that Robin Hood always had an adequate supply of handkerchiefs…

JANE: Actually, I knew this one.  Walter Jon Williams brought it up when he was running a role-playing game for us set in England in 869.  Please note the precision of the date.  Walter loves history – and has won a couple of awards for alternate history stories.  This meant that he kept filling us in on the historical names of places.  It gave an oddly fantasy note to real places.

ALAN: Of course, Spanish America does not have a monopoly on long names…  I believe New Zealand has the honor of being the location of one of the longest place names in the world.

JANE: That sounds tantalizing, but perhaps we’d better wait until next time to get into something so long.

Find Out What You Know

March 7, 2012

Shall I admit it?  I like detail.  Okay…  Let me rephrase that.  I like certain kinds of

A Few of My Notebooks

detail.  I am immune to the charm of entering long lines of computer code.  Tax forms give me hives and palpitations.

When I say I like detail, what I mean is I love knowing what underlies the familiar.  If you’ve been reading the Thursday Tangents, you’ve probably figured this out.  Poor Alan Robson is more patient than you know about my myriad questions.  Of course, he gets in a few of his own, now and then.

I really get excited by how ideas fit together, as anyone knows who has had the misfortune to be in the vicinity when I have a new obsession.  Then I will happily prattle on about whatever has just caught my fancy.  This interest in detail is really not a bad trait for a writer of Fantasy and Science Fiction, since these are genres where knowing where things come from can save a writer from making embarrassing errors.

So how do you start learning about something about which you know nothing?  Do you need to sign up for a course at the local college or prowl the web?  No.  Nothing so complex.  The former is time consuming and the latter demands a real skill in assessing your sources for validity.

A fun and easy way to give yourself a foundation in anything from a historical period to fashions in clothing to industrial processes to wildlife biology – well, to just about anything except tax forms and computer programming – is to read the simple books written for children of grammar school age.  (Alan, by that I mean from about age six through age ten or eleven.)

Let me give an example.  When I was writing the Firekeeper books, I wanted to have the economy of New Kelvin be based in part on being able to supply a commodity not available anywhere else.  I decided to settle on silk.  Why?  I like silk.

However, despite the fact that I like silk, all I knew about how it was produced was that it came from what was usually called a silkworm.  From reading the excellent novel Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart, I knew these weren’t worms of the sort I dig up in my garden, but more like caterpillars.  Clearly, if I was going to base an export economy on silk, I needed to know more.

Surely, you say, sericulture (that’s the cultivation of silkworms) is not something you’ll find covered in children’s books.  Guess what?  It is!  Even in our relatively small local library system, I found several that covered the subject.  I took these home.

From their pages, I acquainted myself with all sorts of interesting facts.  For example, an adult silkworm moth has a wingspan of about two inches.  It reproduces sexually.  Adult life span is brief – a few days or weeks.

I learned that a silkworm’s cocoon is made from a single unbroken thread more than a mile long.  Sericulturalists heat-kill the moths to keep them from breaking the cocoon when they emerge.   And, yep, to get the thread, the cocoons need to be unwound – again, without breaking that thread.

From this start I went on.  I learned that, although the silkworm that produces the silk you’ll find in your local clothing store is of one particular type, there are related insects that produce a similar thread.  These can be found in different climates and not all of them require mulberry leaves…

Whoa!  There I go again…  Still, how many of you have some beauty in your fantasy novel wearing a silk gown?  Does she live in a land of ice and cold, the type of climate where silkworms could never thrive?  I guess there’s a good trade route available.  There is?  Then you’ve learned something about your world.

One of the great things about children’s books as sources is that, since they’re written for young people, nothing is assumed.  Words are defined.  Often the definitions are repeated in a simple glossary.  Another great thing is that there are pictures, not only photographs, but drawings, including cut-away diagrams that show you how things work.

Those pictures and glossaries can be a gem beyond price.  Armed with the knowledge you can garner from them, you’re prepared to move ahead.  Maybe you’ll move to texts written for older children.  Maybe you’ll jump all the way to texts written for adults.  Maybe now you’ll be able to tackle that interesting website that was so confusing the first time.

Or maybe you’ll realize that you have enough to get you going with that part of your story which you didn’t feel was coming out quite right.

I love detail.  I realize that not everyone thinks that reading a book about the evolution of fabric-making techniques is fun.  I do, and did.  Be careful or I’ll start telling you about what went into making the velvet in that gown your heroine is wearing in her big love scene…

Or maybe you can tell me how you feel about detail.  Do you love it or does it drive you up the wall?

TT: Strine and Newzild

March 1, 2012

If you’re looking for the Wednesday Wanderings, just page back and join a discussion about dragons.  Then come back here and join Alan and me on our final safari into Terry Pratchett’s Last Continent.

JANE: All right, Alan, thus far you’ve proven that everything from drop bears

Kookaburra Sits

to cork hats to the galah has some basis in Australia as we know it.  However, I’m sure I’ve found an area where Pratchett went too far… the language.

Based on The Last Continent, it seems I’d be safe adding a diminutive to just about anything an Australian character might say.   Beer tins become “tinnies,” small bottles of beer are “stubbies,” even the Luggage becomes “Trunkie.”  In fact, it seems the more outlandishly descriptive the language, the better.

ALAN: Diminutives are definitely the order of the day in both strine (Australian English) and newzild (New Zealand English). The shorter the word, the less chance there is of a fly getting in your mouth while you are saying it. Relatives are “rellies,” vegetables are “veggies,” a barbecue is a “barbie,” a present is a “pressie” and a pavlova is a “pav.” Even the name of the country itself is abbreviated. Most people refer to it as “Oz.”

JANE: Oz…  That’s good to know.  I’d wondered if that was a local nickname or one attached by tourists.  Here, tourists who think they’re being cool and hip refer to Santa Fe as “the Fe.”  Locals smile politely and then run off to find a corner in which to let loose hysterical laughter.

ALAN: What does Santa Fe actually mean? I assume that “Santa” is “Saint,” but “Fe” has me puzzled.

JANE: Actually “Santa” can mean “holy” as well.  A saint is a holy person and “Santo” is usually shortened to “San” as in “San Francisco” or “San Felipe.”  Interestingly, the feminine “Santa” is not usually shortened, so, for example, we have “Santa Clara” pueblo.

With me so far?

ALAN: So, “Santa Fe” is a female saint?

JANE: Not quite.  The full name of the city is La Villa Real de Santa Fe de San Francisco.  (I’ve left out the accent marks.)

This translates as The Royal Town of the Holy Faith (that’s Santa Fe) of Saint Francis.  The priests who came with the founding expedition were Franciscans, so they named the city for their patron.  I don’t know why the name was shortened to “Santa Fe” rather than “San Francisco,” since Santa Fe is older than the famous California city of that name.

Oh…  And something I would have liked to know when I was a kid reading Westerns.  “Fe” is pronounced “Fey” not “Fee.”

ALAN: I’d never have thought of pronouncing it “Fee”. It’s always been “Fey” to me. How interesting that we both made different assumptions about the pronouncing it.

JANE: Returning to strine… Colorful personal names seem a very important part of Pratchett’s portrayal of “The Last Continent.”  There’s Tinhead Ned.  Rincewind finds himself transformed into “Rinso.”  So…  Do you and Robin get colorful nicknames from your Australian family or are such honors restricted to public figures?

ALAN: To an extent, yes. Again, it’s part of the use of diminutives. You might logically expect that I’d be “Ally” and Robin would be “Robby”. However, for unknown reasons, I remain just plain Alan. Robin is known as Auntie Bob to her hordes of nieces and nephews, though her father calls her Susie. Robin has many more nieces than she has nephews. To their mild embarrassment, she sometimes refers to her nephews as her boy nieces…

Amusingly, Terry (as in Pratchett), which is already a diminutive, often morphs into “Tezza,” and Kerry (who is Robin’s sister in law) is “Kezza.”

And red cattle dogs are all called Bluey, of course – both as a name and as a breed. You can’t get any more colourful than that!

JANE: Australian blue heelers are somewhat popular here, but the ones I’ve seen are blue/grey, not red.  And how did Robin become “Susie”?  Confusion yet again…

ALAN: That’s a mystery – there are no women called Susie in the family at all. Perhaps her father should have had four daughters instead of three. Then he might have actually been able to have the real Susie that he so obviously wanted…

JANE: All right, now for the grand finale.

There’s a phrase Pratchett makes the unofficial slogan of his “Last Continent” – “No Worries.”

To me, that seems an amazing philosophy for a people who have to deal with not only Australia’s barren landscape but less than happy historical beginnings.  However, somehow it seems to reflect this inside out , upside down way of seeing everything.  Is that the case?

ALAN: I have a tee shirt with “No Worries” in a speech bubble on it. The tee shirt was manufactured by The Really Serious Tee Shirt Company Of Australia. The phrase is extremely common and, along with “She’ll be right” reflects an eternally optimistic view of the future. You could probably refer to both phrases as the Antipodean motto and you wouldn’t be far wrong. It’s quite amazing how those few words sum up a national character so well. But they do.

JANE: So it applies to New Zealand as well?

ALAN: Most definitely.

JANE: Did they adopt it from Australia or is it something that comes naturally from living on the downside of the world?

ALAN: I think it’s just a natural part of living upside down all the time. The blood rushes to the head.  By the way, I have a question for you…

JANE: That’s only fair, given how I’ve been bombarding you, but let’s save it for next time.