Archive for November, 2012

TT: When Two or More

November 29, 2012

Looking for the Wednesday Wanderings?  Page back one for a look at the question of authorial denial.  Then join me and Alan as we try to figure out precisely what are Science Fiction and Fantasy.

SF! Sci-Fi! Speculative Fiction! Fantasy!

ALAN: Whenever two or more SF and Fantasy fans gather together, sooner or later they will try and define the meaning of the term.

JANE: “The” term!  Heck, even that can’t be agreed on.  Sci-Fi is the term most non-SF/F readers use, but most hard core fans shrink from it.   My understanding is that Sci-Fi was coined by Forry Ackerman to sound like the then trendy “Hi-Fi.”

Academics tend to refer to SF/F as “speculative fiction.”  Why?  I guess because it sounds more “grown up.”

ALAN:  This obsession with nit-picking generally means that the genre is divided and subdivided into ever finer categories – hard SF, urban fantasy, high fantasy, paranormal romance, etc. – whose main purpose seems to be to allow readers to define their own tastes: “Oh, I never read that particular genre; I don’t like it at all.”

JANE: This is a real problem for writers, especially for writers who don’t always write exactly the same type of book over and over.  Readers don’t know how to define your work.

I try not to fall into the same trap as a reader, but I’ll raise my hand and say “Guilty as charged!”

I’m a huge admirer of Patricia McKillip’s work.  One day, going down the library shelves, I came across a book called Fool’s Run.  It was clearly SF.  I balked.  McKillip writes Fantasy: strange, wonderful, oddly evocative fantasy that runs on its own peculiar internal logic.  She couldn’t write SF.

Well, I was just at a point in my own career where I was facing people trying to limit me, so I picked up Fool’s Run.  It is now one of my absolutely favorite McKillip novels.  Brilliant and insane.

ALAN: I’m just as guilty of this as anyone else, but I strongly suspect that I’m being very unfair. No matter how carefully you try and define a genre, there are always edge cases that don’t fit comfortably and quite often the edge cases are where the most interesting writing is taking place. It’s the straight down the middle of the road stories that fit a genre definition one hundred percent which tend to be unadventurous and dull.

JANE: I feel that way, too.  I know a few writers who basically try to hop on what they think is the Hot Trend.  Their books always lack that special “something” that made that particular sub-category hot.

ALAN: I once heard the author Gene Wolfe say something very interesting. This is a paraphrase, but it captures the essence:

“I don’t know what I write – to me it’s just stuff. When I’ve finished it, I send it off to my publisher and they tell me what category it fits in. I never know what it is until they tell me. To me it’s just stuff.”

Which makes me wonder – just how much is this categorisation a marketing ploy rather than a real description of a literary type?

JANE: A lot.  Right now Barnes and Noble (a major book selling chain) is subdividing YA down to ridiculous extremes.  I think this is meant to help hapless adult buyers find the precise type of book what Little Jenny or Johnny are reading right now.  As if Jenny or Johnny are that limited!

I noted these divisions when I was in a B&N back in October.

First there were three general divisions: New, “Top Teen Picks,” and Teen.

Under these there were – and I am NOT kidding – more subdivisions, including the expected Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Horror.  In honor of Halloween (at least I hope and pray that was why they had this), there was “Best of Undead.”  There were also “Epic Quests,” “Fantasy Adventure” (I guess this differed from Fantasy without an Adventure), and finally an entire section devoted to “Teen Paranormal Romance.”

Finally, there was Teen Non-Fiction – the first four shelves of which were all fiction, which I fear may lead to great confusion.

ALAN: They missed out Teenage Angst! Goodness, gracious me…

JANE: I believe that the tendency to market by subdivision is fed by those “If you liked” things that pop up on book or music buying websites.

Sometimes the pushing of one sub-category is relentless.  A friend of mine bought a couple Brian Eno albums as a gift.  Now, every time she logs on she gets offered everything that Brian Eno ever worked on.

ALAN: We don’t have Barnes and Noble in this part of the world and I don’t think this trend has arrived here (yet). But if it ever does, perhaps we will eventually end up with a huge number of extremely well defined categories, each of which contains one, and only one, book. That way we’ll all know exactly what we are buying. So much so, in fact, that we won’t have to go through the hassle of reading the book after we’ve bought it. We’ll know exactly what happens in the story because of the category it’s in!

Perhaps we’ll stop reading books completely and then we’ll start having conversations with our friends along the lines of: “Hey! I read this really neat category definition the other day. I’m sure you’d like it…”

JANE: Silly!  Still, sub-categories can be useful – especially as ways to talk about a book to someone else.  However, this only works if everyone understands what the category means.  This gives me an idea…  But let’s hold it for next time.


Authorial Denial: Louis L’Amour and Hopalong Cassidy

November 28, 2012

This year for my birthday, a friend gave me a copy of The Rustlers of West Fork, a Hopalong Cassidy novel written by Louis L’Amour.  In the note he included with the book, my friend wrote: “I know you are interested in ‘writerly’ things, and I thought the book’s Afterword might pique your interest.”

Denial Denied

My friend was more on target with his gift than he knew.  I’ve read a lot of Louis L’Amour novels in my time.  For a while, I probably read almost as many of these as I did mysteries – although not as much as SF and F.   I tried other Western writers, but none of them caught my interest in the same way .  Zane Grey was too dry, I recall.   I don’t even remember any of the others by name.

But Louis L’Amour caught my interest.  I had a better insight why when, a good number of years ago, I attended a panel on writing heroes.  The late David Gemmell mentioned Louis L’Amour’s Sacketts as classic heroic figures.  Even the somewhat morally grey “Clinch Mountain Sacketts” –  who might gamble or run scams or even turn outlaw for a while –  were there for their friends and family  when the chips were down .

Gemmell’s words resonated with me.  It was this larger than life heroism set against a relatively realistic background (L’Amour did a lot of historical research) that kept me coming back to Louis L’Amour’s work when the rest of his contemporaries failed to hold my interest.

For years I had heard rumors that L’Amour had written several Hopalong Cassidy novels he fiercely denied having written.  However, until my friend’s gift arrived in the mail, I hadn’t seen any of these.  Needless to say, I was interested.  First, I started the novel.  It wasn’t bad but it wasn’t up to L’Amour’s standard.  Curious as to how much of this was due to writing in someone else’s “world” – for the setting of an established series character is as alien a world as any in SF or F – I turned to the “Afterword” by Beau L’Amour.

It begins with the words: “My father was Tex Burns.  He’s gone now, so I feel it’s time to stop denying it.  I really don’t think Tex Burns ever did anything he needed to be ashamed of; all he did was lose an argument.  Nonetheless, Tex Burns was persona non grata around our house.”

Tex Burns, of course, was the pen name under which Louis L’Amour wrote four Hopalong Cassidy novels.

For those of you who are not familiar with Hopalong Cassidy, here’s a short description.  He began as a character in a series of pulp western stories by Clarence E. Mulford.  In those stories, he was (to quote Beau) a “rough-talking, red-haired cowpuncher named Bill Cassidy.  He got the nickname Hopalong after he was wounded in the thigh by a bullet.”

In 1935, Hopalong Cassidy was brought to the screen played by William L. Boyd.  The character changed dramatically.  Not only was he cleaned up quite a bit, he wore a black costume, rode a white horse, and carried nickle-plated guns.  This costume nicely showed off Boyd’s silver hair – another change from Mulford’s red-head.  The limp also vanished.

According to Beau, Louis was chosen by Mulford himself as his successor.  Louis was in one of the “down” phases that haunt every writer and took the job.  Almost immediately, however, he was pressured to write the character not in the Mulford tradition (as he had assumed he would), but in the Boyd tradition.  Louis eventually gave in to pressure from the people with the paycheck and re-wrote.

I fancy, however, you can see his resistance in the text.  First, he finds a way for Hopalong to get rid of the showy white horse, Topper.  I remember reading in one or more of the Sackett novels that a real western man would never ride a white horse, since it was too showy.  At the time, I thought it was a slam on the Lone Ranger and Silver.  Now I suspect the true target was Topper.

A slight aside here… One of the things that I find amusing about visual story-telling media – whether movies or television or comics – is that physical elements a prose writer could never get away with are accepted with loving tolerance by those who enjoy these story-telling forms.   The classic example is the Superman / Clark Kent divide.  Would a pair of glasses and a slightly different hairstyle really work as a disguise?   It wouldn’t but it did, setting up legions of thinly disguised heroes and heroines, as well as plots that depend on people not recognizing their best friends if they change their clothes and put on glasses.

I think Louis L’Amour felt much the same about the likelihood of the showy Hoppy managing to survive for longer than a few minutes in the trigger-happy Wild West of fiction, especially with the legions of enemies he must have accumulated.  Therefore, Hopalong’s all-black attire is never mentioned and the nickle-plated guns only reluctantly.  The silver hair becomes a descriptive detail that gives Hoppy away to his enemies.  And at one point  Hoppy is described as “slope-shouldered” – not exactly a compliment, especially given Louis’s fondness for slim-hipped, broad-shouldered heroes.

Beau L’Amour says the Hopalong books weren’t bad.  I can’t agree.  The prose is exceedingly sloppy.  At one point, the hero drop-ties his mount by dropping the bridle – not the reins, as this device is more usually described.  The body-count is astonishingly high.  The structure, dictated in part I am sure by the fact that the books were serialized first, is episodic and a bit disconnected.

But should Louis have denied that he wrote them?

Personally, I don’t think so.  I think he could have used these novels as a means of explaining to his legions of fans just how hard it is to be a writer, especially with the erratic pay. He could have talked about the penalties of work-for-hire, especially when media pressure enters the picture.  But he didn’t, so Tex Burns haunted him for the rest of his life.

What would you do if you were in Louis L’Amour’s position?  Lots of neo-writers these days publish on-line under pseudonyms.  Do you think this will come back to haunt them?

TT: Modeling for Peter Jackson

November 22, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving!  This week’s Wednesday Wandering may offer food for thought as I invite you to join me in looking at the changing role of bookstores.  Then be the first with some cool anecdotes Alan has to share about how  Peter Jackson has been a major influence on fandom in New Zealand.

Miniature from Conquest, NZ

JANE: There’s a lot of chatter here about the forthcoming films based on The Hobbit by Peter Jackson.  Jackson, of course, belongs to your part of the world and does much of his work there in New Zealand.

Back when I visited New Zealand in 1995, I gathered the general impression that the SF club running the convention was interested in model building – that, in fact, the building of SF/F models was what had drawn a number of people into the club.

ALAN: Yes, that’s right. The SF club in Auckland was originally called the SF Modeler’s Club and in those days that was its primary role. One of its major projects was a life size model of the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. It took them several years to make and I strongly suspect that it’s the best starship bridge you’ll ever see until a real one comes along. They used it a lot as a stage set for live role playing.  David Gerrold (who was closely involved with Star Trek, of course) was once a guest at a con they organised and he was full of praise for it. He even autographed it for them!

JANE: Oh!  I saw some smaller models.  In fact, I have a little, tiny one, but I had no idea the club got that ambitious.

I remember that the young – 22, then, I think – Norman Cates who was con chair dreamed of getting into special effects.  In 1995, that seemed a really unlikely dream, especially for someone living in New Zealand, not Hollywood.  But, of course, Norman’s dream came true.

ALAN: Indeed it did. I first met Norman when he was 17 years old. He was explaining how lasers worked at a club meeting.  To appreciate this story, you need to understand that the word laser is an acronym for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission Of Radiation. Essentially photons are energised (stimulated) and forced to travel in the same direction rather than scattering randomly.

Norman told us all this and then gave a practical demonstration. He brought all the girls from the audience up on to the stage and stood them in a row. They were, he explained, photons.  Now all he had to do was stimulate them. He gave them some whispered instructions and then ran down the line tapping each photon on the shoulder. As soon as it was touched, the photon jumped and squealed to indicate how hugely stimulated and full of energy it was, and then it ran off stage, closely followed by the next photon, and the next. All in the same direction…

Later the photons all said how much they’d enjoyed being stimulated by Norman, and how much they’d learned about how lasers worked. It was a most effective demonstration and I remember thinking to myself at the time that this man would go far. I’m very pleased to have been proved right.

JANE: Norman is certainly very enthusiastic – and very nice.  Some years ago, he was in the U.S. with his dad.  They contacted me and Jim (through you!) before arriving.  When they got here, we did a little touring.

By weird coincidence, I was due to give a reading at the local SF club that Friday night.  Instead of doing a long reading, I brought Norman along and interviewed him about his work.  He had his laptop with him and showed slides from “backstage” working on the Lord of the Rings movies.

Norman also told how he ended up being the model for Fatty Bolger when the Lord of the Rings cards came out.  Since poor Fatty ends up cut from the movies, they didn’t have footage.  Norman was given the chance to put on the feet and ears and costume and be photographed screaming in terror.  I thought he did a great job!

ALAN: I hadn’t heard the Fatty Bolger story before. How fascinating! Norman’s talk must have been a treat for you all. He’s a great raconteur – I remember the first time I heard him talking about what went on behind the scenes of the movies. I was absolutely gobsmacked! His first job was making prosthetics  –  he made hundreds and hundreds of hobbit feet and elven ears, but he was particularly proud and fond of the noses that he made for Gandalf.

About half way through the first movie,  he took a sideways step and moved away from model making into computerised special effects. He actually got his name in the credits for The Fellowship Of The Ring twice, once for his prosthetic work and once for his computer effects work. I studied the credits eagerly when the movie first came out, looking for names that I knew. I was hoping it would say something like “Noses By Norman,” but it didn’t. Shame really…

JANE: How has having Peter Jackson right there in New Zealand influenced New Zealand fandom?

ALAN: Peter was world famous in New Zealand long before he was world famous in the world, and he’s always been hugely popular here. His early movies were probably best described as science fiction splatter movies which were full of really gross special effects. But he did them with such style and humour that he could get away with the most outrageous things. His first movie was called Bad Taste and that says it all, really.

Probably the best of his early movies was Braindead (I think the title in America was Dead Alive). I was at its first screening and I overheard somebody remark that they didn’t know whether to laugh or vomit…

JANE: Okay.  I think I’ll give these a miss.   You certainly can see the influence, however, in how really physically nasty his orcs and the Uruk-hai are in the Lord of the Rings movies.

So, does he come to your conventions or anything?

ALAN: As far as I know he’s never been to our conventions and he’s never had any direct involvement in fandom. But nevertheless he has had a huge indirect effect on the way that fandom has evolved here. A lot of fans in other countries come to SF and fantasy through reading books, and their own artistic efforts often tend towards the written word. But here we have a disproportionately large number of people whose artistic interests are in film and TV and I’m sure a lot of that is because of Peter.

JANE: I think that’s really neat.  Maybe because I’m not really good in the visual arts, I always admire those who can create in that fashion.  I think I’d enjoy seeing how this different form of creativity influences your conventions.  Here, I always try to go to the Artist Guest of Honor’s presentation and the costume contest because I’m stimulated by how other people shape creativity.

As I’ve noted in some of my Wanderings, I use creative or visual props to stimulate my writing.

ALAN: I don’t know any insider secrets, but if anyone has questions about what it’s like to work with Sir Peter Jackson, I might be able to help.  Feel free to ask!

Bookstores: A Magical Realm

November 21, 2012

Oddly enough, for someone who has always been an avid reader, when I was a kid, bookstores actually didn’t play a very big role in my life.  The library was far more important, and not just because I was perpetually short on pocket money.  There just didn’t seem to be bookstores around.

Signing at Page One

I occasionally bought books from the wire racks in the drug store or Sears.  However, my memory doesn’t include bookstores in the neighborhood where I lived in D.C., and certainly not in the part of rural Maryland that was so essential to my summers.  I think I bought the most books at yard sales, church bazaars, and at small “antique” stores that carried a wide variety of second-hand stuff.

It wasn’t until I went away to college at Fordham in New York that I encountered the really big bookstores.  The original Barnes and Noble awed me.  It  became a destination point when my friends and I made field trips from our campus in the Bronx into Manhattan.   Later, as my mobility grew, I found mall bookstores.  I also discovered second hand bookstores.  These reminded me of the “antique” stores of my childhood, only these were devoted entirely to books and book-related items.  Eventually, the big box bookstores started appearing.

These were fine.  I still shop in them to this day.  Somehow, though, like the mall shops, they didn’t give me the sense of hunting for treasure that I felt when shopping in less polished venues.  Also, although some of these shared a name with Barnes and Noble, they lacked the vast selection I recalled, the sense of being able to find a book on just about anything if I looked carefully enough.

When I moved to Albuquerque, I found myself surrounded by bookstores: chain stores, independent stores, stores packed with used books.  There were even stores that specialized in certain types of books.  One store – Page One – tried to do it all.  On one side of the street they had a big store specializing in new books.  On the other side, there was an even bigger store called Page One Two that specialized in used books.  Page One Two included a mysterious room devoted solely to rare and collectable volumes.

The staff at Page One and the other independents seemed to know about books and authors in a way that very few of the chain stores did.  (There was one local Barnes and Noble that was different but only because the manager worked hard to hire and retain “book people.”)

With the advent of the internet, our choices for brick and mortar book stores started shrinking.  I won’t go into that story, since it’s one that readers all over the U.S. have experienced.   More important, however, was that the remaining bookstores seemed to suffer a major identity crisis.

Coffee shops attached to the bookstores burgeoned.  I admit to wondering about the logic of these, given the amount of periodical literature I have seen used and abused in these areas.  Does it matter if people spend more time in the shop if they don’t buy anything and ruin the material they enjoy with their coffee?

Another change was that content of bookstores became more generic.  Even in the “independents,” much space seemed given over to the flavor of the month.  Miss a particular release and they’d offer to order it for you…

This was a self-destructive tactic, if I’ve ever seen one.  It served as a reminder that, with the internet, anyone can order anything and often get free shipping on top of it.  I did this myself when a specific book I wanted to get for my niece was not available in any local store.  I tried – at expense to myself in terms of gasoline and time – to buy local but, while there were many copies of the latest bestsellers languishing on display tables, I couldn’t find one copy of this classic.

After I’d made the order, I chanced into one of the book stores I’d phoned and saw on the shelf a new edition of the book I’d been seeking, only with a slightly different title.  Apparently, the clerk I had spoken to was not familiar with the store’s stock  He might as well have been selling shoes and telling me that my size was not available, rather than that there was a newer, fancier model waiting for me.

Currently, a rumor is spreading here in Albuquerque that when the current editor of the book page in our local Sunday paper retires, the newspaper plans to discontinue that page entirely.   Not only will this rob us of the half-dozen or so thoughtful reviews, but also there will no longer be a place where local book events (signings, readings, contests, and the like) will be listed.

Will that be the end of book events because there will be fewer places to learn about them?  Or will some enterprising person create a website?  I don’t know.  I do know it will hurt the remaining culture of the bookstore since one thing bookstores can offer that on-line cannot is an opportunity for authors and readers to meet.

What do you want from a bookstore?  Would you regret if bookstores vanished?  Is shopping on-line good enough?  Better?  Worse?   What would advice would you offer someone who wanted to start a bookstore?

TT: Rocking Lords and Authors

November 15, 2012

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  This week I’m wandering about involuntary time travel, memorization, and handwriting.  Then do join me and Alan as we conclude our discussion of the British peerage.

Rocking Royalty

JANE: As we have been talking about how titles evolved, I’ve found myself wondering about how modern lords and ladies are created.

ALAN: Generally speaking, they aren’t. Hereditary peerages can only be created by the sovereign.  These days she does not initiate the process; she takes advice from the government of the day.  But in the 1950s, the government introduced the idea of life peerages as a reward for public service.  Since then the creation of hereditary titles has largely become obsolete.

In the last fifty years, only seven hereditary titles have been created. Two of those have subsequently vanished since the men appointed to them had no heirs, and two others were mere formalities, being awarded to members of the Royal Family on the occasion of their marriage.

JANE: But I know that there have been quite recent occasions when people were given knighthoods.  I guess these aren’t hereditary titles.  Can you explain what they are?

ALAN:  Various grades of honours are awarded for public service of one sort or another. Medals can be given, knighthoods are awarded, and people can be made members of various chivalric orders. Honours are awarded each new year and on the sovereign’s birthday.  They may also be awarded on the dissolution of parliament and on the resignation of a prime minister.

There’s a long tradition of giving awards for contributions to the arts as well as for public service. Elton John, Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney all have knighthoods.  So does our own Terry Pratchett, of course. And both Gandalf and Saruman have knighthoods, though they accepted the title under the pseudonyms of Ian McKellen and Christopher Lee for mysterious wizardly reasons of their own.

JANE: Trifle not with the ways of wizards, for they have wands…  Or staves.

So with these honors,  men become “sir” – which is a knight, right?  But females become “dames,” not ladies.  To an American ear, “dame” sounds very odd, especially since in our language “dame” is rather old-fashioned slang for a woman – not at all a polite form of address.

ALAN: Not all the honours grant titles. But of those that do, you are quite correct in saying that a dame is the female equivalent of a knight, odd though it sounds to your ears!

JANE: I know my beloved Agatha Christie was knighted.  Would she have been Dame Agatha or Lady Agatha or Dame Christie or Lady Christie or even Dame Mallowan (since her husband was Max Mallowan)?

ALAN: In 1956, Agatha Christie was awarded a CBE (Commander of the British Empire). That didn’t give her a title though, just a medal. In 1971, she was promoted to a DBE (Dame Commander of the British Empire) which gave her the title Dame, of course. Because her husband had a knighthood, she was also allowed to call herself Lady Mallowan. But in her own right she was just Dame Agatha Mary Clarissa Christie.

JANE: Just…  I think I could handle such a “just.”

Alan, you’re going to think that everything I know about modern British culture comes via rock and roll.   In some ways, actually, you’d be right.

You’ve talked about Americans being a bit prudish, and I won’t argue the point.  However, I do wonder about rock stars being knighted, especially when, in addition to their admitted musical achievements, they are known for extralegal activities, especially in the area of drugs.

Isn’t there a line in acceptable behavior?  I mean, we Americans think of the British as so very proper. While I can see that you can’t stop someone who has inherited a title from behaving badly, it seems odd to give a title to someone who is known to have broken the law.

ALAN: Why should youthful peccadilloes mar the whole of your life? Also, attitudes change with time. Oscar Wilde went to jail for offences that these days would scarcely raise an eyebrow. And, despite their reputations, both Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney each have only been convicted of one very minor offence. Neither has ever made any secret of their lifestyles, but really what does that matter in the grand scheme of things? Both have made enormous contributions to music. Surely they deserve recognition?

Yes, you are correct, the British are very proper, but they are also very tolerant. And it’s that kind of  zen contradiction that makes the British so maddeningly puzzling to everybody else in the world!

JANE: I like that attitude, actually.  Certainly, I wouldn’t want to be judged now for the dumber choices I made when I was twenty, or even thirty, or, uh, forty…

Still, wasn’t getting stripped of a title a penalty for bad behavior?

ALAN: Yes, indeed.  Some British peers who had family connections with Germany actually fought against the British in the first world war. In 1919, their titles were suspended. Their descendants, who of course have not committed any offence, have the right to appeal that suspension and have the hereditary title and estates (if they exist) restored. Interestingly, none have chosen to do so.

JANE: Thanks, Alan.   I have certainly enjoyed our trip through the rabbit hole of English titles.  As a bonus, the next time I write a fantasy or historical piece where they are appropriate, I’m going to feel a lot more confident.

Back in Time?

November 14, 2012

For a moment, not so long ago, I was back on October 24th.

October 24th, October 24th

I have a page-a-day calendar on my desk.  The other day, I tore the sheet off for the previous day and, after glancing at the picture – a nice pinto horse – I went back to work.  Later, when I was checking the date before making an appointment, I glanced at the calendar again.

Neat black letters informed me that the date was October 24th.  I stared at it.  Until a moment before, I’d been certain that the date was sometime in November.  After all, why else was I wondering what to get one of my nephews for his birthday?  Why was I thinking ahead to Christmas gifts?  I tend to plan ahead, but not that far ahead.

My head felt floaty, courtesy of some rather heavy-duty cough medication I’m taking, but certainly I was not so out of it as to have imagined living through much of a month.

I considered the facts.  I felt certain the month was definitely November.  When Jim and I went to Weems Art Fest last weekend, the date had been November 11th.  People kept making jokes about it being 11/11/12.

Surely there was an error in the calendar itself.  As I turned the pages, my sense of being grounded in time was again shaken.  There in neat sequence, yet unviewed, were the days from October 24th forward.

I pulled open the drawer where I keep old calendar pages to use as scratch paper (and to make paper balls for the kitten to chase when she gets too annoying).  At first, I found very few pages from November 2012, which didn’t add to my sense of confidence at all.  Then, I came across a couple.  Finally, I came across October 24th.  I set it beside the other October 24th, just to reassure myself.

Yes.  For some reason known only to the calendar company, an extra half-month or so had been duplicated.  Mystery solved.  Reality re-established.   Nonetheless, I found myself struck by how seeing that page proclaiming that the date was actually October 24th had made me question my memory.

Is this part of the legacy of being a member of a culture that relies so heavily on written materials?

Very few people memorize things any more.  Even when I was a kid, rote memorization was dying out.  Now, with various search engines making it easy to look up information, I’ve repeatedly been told that such foundation skills as memorizing dates or state capitals or bits of poetry are wasting time that could be used to learn more productive skills.

Most often cited as “productive” skills are those that involve computer use.  However, I wonder…  Computer programs rapidly become obsolete.  Even once “basic” skills like “keyboarding” (aka “typing”) are being replaced (or so “they” say) by touch pads or sensitive screens.

I’m not sure I agree that memorization is useless.  Memorization does more than load a person up with information.  It trains the brain to understand foundations.  I remember thinking a lot about how 2 x 10 = 20, but 4 x 5 also equaled 20 and so did 5×4… and so did 1×20.  In other words, memorization (and I hated those multiplication tables) did more than fill my brain with information.  It supplied me with the means to think about how numbers relate to each other.

The same was true for memorizing poetry.  Not only did it give me a few verses with which to amuse myself, it intimately introduced me to rhyme and reason on a “gut,” rather than intellectual, level.  Even those state capitals gave me something of a feeling for the “whys” of various places, since a state capital is often named for some important person or event.  Trying to remember why the capital of Maryland was Annapolis, not Baltimore, gave those places a reality.

Handwriting is another skill that isn’t being taught in many schools.  As anyone who has ever received a handwritten note from me can testify, my handwriting is far from the best.  However, I firmly believe (and some studies have begun to support my wholly experiential deduction) that writing something out by hand uses an entirely different part of the brain than does using a keyboard.

I know that, when I’m stuck on a story, a trick I use to get myself out of the hole is writing by hand, rather than on the computer.  It’s as if my handwriting is tied more closely to my subconscious.  Many of my novels have begun in handwritten form.  Only after I have the ideas flowing do I shift to the keyboard.  And even then,  I prefer to use an old one that my fingers “know,” because it has become an extension of my creative process, not an intermediary.

Inspiration comes from odd places, sometimes, even, from a misprinted calendar…   I’m not saying all old skills need to be preserved, but I do think sometimes we’re too eager to throw away the old skill in favor of the fast, easy, practical new skills.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter…

TT: Commemorates What, Exactly?

November 8, 2012

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Page back one to learn not only what a tishien is but how thrilling it is to see words turned into pictures.  Then come back for a return to a former theme.  Several month ago, Alan and I were discussing holidays.  In honor (and even “honour”) of the coming of  Armistice Day, we decided to return to that theme this week.

JANE: Alan, back when we were discussing holidays, you mentioned that your mom’s birthday was also Armistice Day.  We don’t have a holiday by that name.   How did sharing with a holiday effect your mom’s celebration?  Did she get anything chocolate out of it?  Little foil wrapped tanks or something?

WW II Memorial: Washington, D.C.

ALAN: That would have been a very appropriate gift. What a shame I never thought of it at the time.

When I was a little boy I was always really impressed that on my mother’s birthday everybody in the country wore a poppy to celebrate it, and the Queen laid a wreath at the Cenotaph. The wreath laying ceremony was always broadcast on the TV news.  This just confirmed what I already knew  – my mum was a really important and influential person. It was only later in life that I came to realize that it wasn’t all for my mum. Some of it was to remember and commemorate the soldiers who died in WWI, and also, of course, in later conflicts as well.

But I never quite lost the conviction that most of it was for my mum.

JANE: Oh!  I think we do have that holiday but, like too many holidays created to celebrate specific events, it has become generic.  Here, Armistice Day is now Veteran’s Day.  It is still anchored to November 11th, but except for kids and a few government workers getting a holiday, no one pays much attention.

ALAN: Just like you, we use the ceremony to commemorate the dead of far too many wars. So for that reason, we often now refer to it as Remembrance Day rather than Armistice Day. But the older name is still used.

Strangely, we don’t get a holiday for it. I would have thought that it would be an ideal choice for a public holiday. But what do I know?

JANE: I must admit, I have a rant on that’s related to this.

ALAN: Kindly rant.

JANE: Too many days of commemoration have become generic and therefore lost any meaning at all.   Here in the U.S., we used to have Washington’s Birthday and Lincoln’s Birthday.   Now we have President’s Day.   Since just about everyone has a gripe about some president or other, the day is not really a celebration.

We used to have Decoration Day (which originated after  our Civil War).   Now we have Memorial Day and no one remembers what we’re remembering.

I’m still not sure what Labor Day is about.  Since it falls at the end of summer, when I was a kid, I thought it was “Labor” day because we were going back to our labors in the classroom.

I think I’d prefer for old commemorations to remain as they were, rather than becoming so diluted that they lose all meaning.  At least we’d get a history lesson that way.

ALAN: Well said – I couldn’t agree more. But sometimes circumstances force us into behaviours that quickly become entrenched in custom. A good example is a very strange holiday that only happens in the North of England. It’s called Wakes Week and, as the name implies, it lasts for a week. Except when it lasts for a fortnight. This is England we’re talking about and the last thing you’ll find there is logic.

Wake’s Week takes place at the height of summer in the Northern counties which were once the industrial heart of England. Every year the mills and the factories would close down so that the machinery could be serviced and refurbished. So that was the time when  all the workers took their annual summer holiday.

JANE: Why is it called Wakes Week?

ALAN: Why not? Not a very satisfactory answer to your question I agree, but it’s the only honest one. I have no idea of the derivation and neither, it seems, does anyone else.

Traditionally, during Wakes Week, everyone would go to the seaside; usually (in our case at least) to Scarborough or Morecambe – pronounced SCAR-bru (short ‘u’, sort of a grunt) and MORE-cum respectively. We’d roll our trousers up and paddle in the sea.  We’d tie a knotted handkerchief around our head to protect ourselves from the sunshine. Yes – I *know* that’s a cliche and you’ve seen it parodied a million times on TV shows like Monty Python, but it’s a cliche because it’s true. I’ve seen both my father and grandfather do it, and believe me they were not alone.

JANE: Did you do it too?

ALAN: I’ve certainly done the knotted handkerchief but, at the time of which we speak I was still a small boy in short trousers, so I didn’t have anything to roll up. It saved a lot of time…

JANE: Ah, yes.  I remember the days of my youth when I’d go swimming in whatever I was wearing at the time – usually shorts and a tee-shirt. That stopped when I started having what people go to wet tee-shirt contests to view.

Now that I think of it, didn’t you mention an interesting New Zealand holiday a few weeks back…  It began with Wai…

ALAN:  Ah, yes! Waitangi Day. On 6th February 1840, a treaty was signed between the Maori tribes and the white settlers. Effectively it brought New Zealand under the rule of the British Crown and guaranteed the Maori rights to their land, and the rights of  British subjects. The treaty was signed in a town called Waitangi (hence the name of both the treaty and the holiday). We regard the treaty in much the same way that you regard the Declaration of Independence; it’s the founding document of our nation and we celebrate it with a holiday every year.

JANE: How do the Maori feel about it?  As I mentioned a while back, some of the Native Americans view Thanksgiving with less than thankfulness.

ALAN: Waitangi Day is not without its controversial aspects but nevertheless the Treaty of Waitangi has given Maori a status that few, if any, other indigenous people have managed to achieve in other colonial outposts. The treaty has not been well implemented and there have certainly been abuses, but nevertheless it puts Maori in a very strong position. For all its flaws, I still think its heart was in the right place.

And Waitangi Day is a commemoration which most certainly has not become generic. Its significance is still strongly appreciated so it is perhaps a counter example to your rant. It’s nice to know that there are exceptions, don’t you think?

JANE: Absolutely.  Makes me happy, actually.  Now, you thought you were going to escape from answering questions about British titles, but I’ve thought of a new one!

Metamorphosis into Pictures

November 7, 2012

A couple of weeks ago (WW 10-24-12), I mentioned working on the computer game Chronomaster.  Since then, I’ve been thinking about that wonderful moment when I first saw my words transformed into pictures.  In 1995, when I was working on the game, only a couple of my novels had been published.  Quite honestly, neither of the covers (the original for Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls and that for Marks of Our Brothershad come even remotely close to how I envisioned the characters or their setting).

Two Interpretations of Tishien

Therefore, despite having liked the preliminary sketches I’d seen, when I set up the beta version of Chronomaster, I didn’t have very high expectations.  Accustomed to a much slower computer (I’d rented one that could run the game), I wasn’t even watching the screen when the opening came up.  Imagine my astonishment when some noise made me turn and I looked over to see a flotilla of space ships soaring across the screen, laser beams and missiles raining destruction down upon an obviously doomed city.

An old woman was talking to a small boy, speaking words I’d written for her.  “And this is happening, not only here, but all over the world.  We must hide deep beneath the earth, for the worst has not yet come.”  I stood there stunned, then slowly lowered myself into the desk chair to watch Chronomaster unfold.

Writers frequently get asked a variation on the question: “If your story was made into a movie or television show, who would you like to play this character or that or direct or…?”

That’s a question certain to floor me.  My stories belong to their own worlds.  Maybe because I don’t watch a lot of television or movies (these days my very limited viewing time is mostly reserved for anime and the occasional old film), I don’t even know who are the current hot stars.  I certainly don’t know who the directors or producers are.

This doesn’t mean I’m immune to the thrill of seeing my words inspire someone else into pictures.  In fact, since I can’t draw beyond the simplest of cartoons, I think I get more of a thrill out of watching that transformation happen than if I could draw.

As I have mentioned before, I’m a long-time role-playing gamer.  My current group shares a talent that I’ve never encountered before.  Almost all my players are good at drawing.  (The exception is Jim.  And me.  But I’m running the game, so that doesn’t matter.)

A few weeks ago, I was introducing the small town of Black Goat’s Pass.  Being me, I’d worked out the economy for the region.  In the process, I had invented an herbivore called a “tishien.”  Tishien products – especially wool and their curious, twisting horns – are one of the mainstays of the local economy.

In the way players will, my group fastened on the tishien as something particularly fascinating.  “What do they look like?”  “Multiple horns?”  “How do they grow?”  “Have you ever seen a Navajo churro?”

As the discussion became more lively, I noticed that both Tori and Cale had pulled out their sketch books.  Cale made what seemed to be (to me) very few pencil strokes, then leaned over to hand me his book.  “Sort of like this?”

I was astonished.  Had I really said enough to let him create something so like the creature of my imagination?  Even the rather creepy eyes were just right.  Tori had her colored pens out and spent a little more time refining her sketch.  When she held it up, there – in living color, perfect for heraldic representation – was a tishien in profile.  (Yes.  They do come in blue.)  I was as thrilled as on that long-ago day when the flotilla from Chronomaster glided across my computer screen.

As a writer, I get a lot of satisfaction out of telling the story I want to tell.  However, I’ll admit, helping to plant the seeds for someone else’s creative effort is fun – and weirdly rewarding – too.

Maybe one of these days, I’ll even see someone in costume as one of my characters.   (I missed the party where someone came as Mira from Child of a Rainless Year. ) That would be neat, sort of three dimensional art…  I think Firekeeper wouldn’t be too hard to manage, if, of course, you could find Blind Seer.  Jenny from The Buried Pryamid only needs a kitten…

TT: Lord Byron? Baron Byron? George?

November 1, 2012

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?   Page back one and join me as I look into whether NaNoWriMo is a trick or a treat.  Then come back take a look while Alan shows  just how weird a single person’s titles can get…

Vorpal Blade and Woofle Dust:  Traditional Tools When Tracking the Trail of Titles

JANE: There’s one important group of titles we haven’t discussed.  How about lords and ladies?  From my studies of English lit, I know this is a deceptively simple title.  Lord Byron wasn’t named “Byron,” was he?  I think his name was George Gordon or something like that.

ALAN: Ah yes. His family name was Byron and he was christened George Gordon Byron. (Gordon was his mother’s maiden name). His father later took the additional surname “Gordon” so as to have a legal claim to the Scottish estates of his wife. After that, the young Byron often referred to himself as George Byron Gordon (though he never, as far as I can tell, called himself  George Gordon Byron Gordon, which I think is a shame).

In 1822, his mother-in-law, Judith Noel, died.  Her will required young George to change his surname to “Noel” in order to inherit her estates. So he became George Gordon Noel or, sometimes, George Byron Noel, or any other combination of names you can dream up as long as they ended with Noel. As a child, he had inherited the Barony of Byron and was therefore additionally entitled to call himself “Lord Byron.” After changing his surname, he often signed himself as Noel Byron. He was also fond of the initials NB, partly as a linguistic joke and partly because they were the initials of his hero, Napoleon Bonaparte.

Where were we?

JANE: In the process of amazing me out of my mind…  Actually, you were explaining what a lord or lady is…

ALAN: Oh that’s easy. All members of the peerage, no matter what their rank, are collectively referred to, and are addressed as, lords and ladies. After all, what do you say when you are talking to an aristocrat? You can hardly keep referring to him as “your earlship.”

JANE: Actually, I wondered if that’s exactly what you were supposed to do.  This is something of a relief.  Go on…

ALAN: Just imagine the social horror and embarrassment if he wasn’t an earl! What if he was a count instead? I think you’d have to go into permanent exile after a faux pas like that. So you call him “my lord,” and his wife is “my lady.” Byron was actually a baron, but he always referred to himself as Lord Byron, probably because Baron Byron sounds so silly.

JANE: It does, indeed, especially for a man of his temperament.  What do you folks do when lords or ladies have titles that are different from their names?

ALAN: That’s quite simple as well. A peer is usually addressed as (rank) (name of title). The name of the title can be either a surname or a place name. Sometimes the two are identical, but they don’t have to be, of course.

Byron’s name was the same as his title, probably because of a long family association. Consequently, he could be called either Lord Byron or Lord Byron, whichever seemed more appropriate at the time.

JANE: “Ah, hello, Lord Byron.  Or should that be Lord Byron?  Or will you settle for George?  No?  You prefer Noel Byron?” Frankly, my head hurts.

ALAN: But titles don’t necessarily have a family association to a place. For example, in 1984, Harold Macmillan (a British Prime Minister in the 1950s) was appointed Earl of Stockton. He is more usually referred to as Lord Stockton, probably because Lord Macmillan simply doesn’t sound right, even though it is perfectly correct.

JANE: It sounds all right to me…  Of course, since Macmillan (the publishing conglomerate) has written my paycheck from time to time, I think highly of them.

ALAN: You speak truer than you know. The publishing firm of Macmillan was his family business, and young Harold joined the firm as a junior partner in 1920. But by 1940, the siren song of politics became too strong for him to resist and he changed his career. So, for you, calling him Lord Macmillan would be entirely appropriate.

JANE: Yes!  At last a title that I can get right!

ALAN: Obviously anyone who doesn’t have a title must be a commoner, and that includes the children of the nobility (who are not themselves noble until or unless they inherit the title).  However, these children are allowed to be called by courtesy titles, even though they hold no rank in their own right.

JANE: Courtesy titles?

ALAN:  The heir apparent to the title (always male) is allowed to use one of his father’s lesser titles, if one exists. Younger children are referred to as lords and ladies. But you must understand that they aren’t really lords and ladies, they are just called lords and ladies…

Children of the peerage can also be addressed as “The Honourable…”. This distinguishes them from their parents who are more properly addressed as “The Right Honourable…”

I think Lewis Carroll might have been sprinkling more of his magic woofle dust here.

JANE: You beat me to it.  Actually, you make me feel very good about how confused I have gotten about English titles over the years.  They really don’t make sense.

ALAN: I don’t know what I’ll be in  my next life, but I’ll guarantee you it will have nothing whatsoever to do with the protocols of the peerage. Trust me, I find it even more bewildering than you do! I want to go home and stick my head in a bucket of cold water so as to cool my fevered brain.

JANE: I have a bucket of cold water on the back patio, but, sadly, you are too far to avail yourself of it.  Perhaps a teapot?  Dormice?  Stuffing therein?

I have one more question for you, but since I’m woofle-dusted, I shall wait until next time.

(Now, where did I leave my vorpal blade?  Wanders off muttering.)