Archive for March, 2014

TT: Talking Trash

March 27, 2014

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering? Just page back one and offer your opinions on lists… Then come back and join me and Alan as we dig deeper into the gritty question of trash.

JANE: Last time you mentioned that when you and Robin did your “clear out” you took a lot of stuff to the “tip.” Based on the context, I guess that this is what we here would call a “dump.”

Waste Baskets

Waste Baskets

ALAN: I’m familiar with the noun “dump”, but only from American novels. We use the word as a verb rather than as a noun so we’d dump our rubbish at the tip. Curiously, we do use “dump” as a noun, but only if it is qualified with an adjective; so “rubbish dump” would be a perfectly acceptable phrase, where “dump” by itself would not. Of course, that would require us to “dump our rubbish at the rubbish dump” which is a technically accurate, but extraordinarily ugly sentence. Maybe that’s why we have the noun “tip,” so as to avoid such ugly constructions.
Mind you — “tip” can also be a verb. So I suppose I could tip my rubbish into the tip, if I felt like it. But that’s an ugly sentence as well.

JANE: I suspect – only suspect – that both “tip” and “dump” as nouns evolved from the verbs.

I think I prefer “dump” to “tip,” if for no other reason than the word always reminds me of a joke that, as a kid, I thought very funny. Are you familiar with the Lone Ranger as adapted for television and radio? Especially the theme song?

ALAN: Oh yes! The William Tell Overture. I have a record of Spike Jones gargling the tune. It’s hilarious and revolting at one and the same time. Anyway – tell me your Lone Ranger joke.

JANE: Right! Here goes…

Q: Where does the Lone Ranger take his trash?

A: (sung to the William Tell Overture): To the dump, to the dump, to the dump,dump, dump!

ALAN: Excuse me. I need to gargle so as to get the taste of that out of my mouth.
JANE: <giggle> This joke brings me around to another linguistic puzzle. You spoke of taking “rubbish” to the tip. Here, we’re more likely to use the words “garbage” or “trash.” There are even subtle differences in which would be used when.

ALAN: I never thought of rubbish as being a subtle concept. Please tell me; what are the nuances that separate these two words?

JANE: Again, remembering that American English has lots of regional variations and my definitions are based on being raised in Washington, D.C., by parents of Midwestern extraction, here are my definitions.

“Trash” seems to be more commonly applied to “dry” items like paper, plastics, cardboard, wood, stone, and the like. “Garbage” seems to imply either food items or items contaminated with food waste or other generally icky things. Therefore, a piece of paper is trash, but if you wrap a piece of chicken in the paper and the paper becomes soiled, then the paper becomes garbage.

I doubt there is a hard and fast rule, but it’s interesting to see these distinctions in application. The little containers used in offices or suchlike are called “trash baskets” or “waste baskets” or even “wastepaper baskets.” They are never called (to the best of my knowledge) “garbage baskets.”

ALAN: We call them wastepaper baskets as well, but rubbish bin is an equally acceptable term.

In recent years we’ve also started to make the distinction that you make between trash and garbage, though we don’t really have separate names for the different types of rubbish. It’s happened because of the growing emphasis on recycling things.

The city council now requires us to separate out all the recyclable stuff like cardboard and plastic and glass, and to that end, as a one off exercise, they distributed special bins to everyone for people to put the recyclable stuff in. Every place received one bin per title holder of the property. Mostly this worked, but there were some amusing edge cases. An enormous 500 bedroom luxury hotel ended up with only one tiny bin because there was only one name on the title deed. And a small 6 bedroom private hotel that was being used by a syndicate for tax avoidance purposes received 389 recycling bins, much to the consternation of the delivery man who couldn’t find anywhere to put them all.

JANE: That is amusing… However, you’ve generated another question. What is a “one off exercise”? To me this sounds as if you only had to use those recycling bins one time. Is this the case?

ALAN: The phrase certainly means “something that you do only once.” But in this case, it refers the actual distribution of the new rubbish bins to the households of the city, rather than to the use of the bins themselves.

JANE: Ah, hah! Now I understand.

ALAN: The distribution of the bins was very entertaining in its own right. A monster road train (a long multiply articulated vehicle) would roar down the street. Every so often it would stop and a team of men would jump off and deliver a bin to the front of each house. Since this was generally the most exciting (and noisiest) thing that had happened in the street for years, there were always large crowds of people, well-armed with mobile phones, to record the scene.

A newspaper story of the time tells of one of the bin delivery men who, for obscure reasons of his own, decided to steal a pedigree dog from the house he was delivering the bin to. Not unnaturally, the dog objected to being stolen and it wriggled and barked as the man dashed down the street with it clutched in his arms, running the gauntlet of iphones along the way. When the police turned up to arrest him, he expressed surprise. How had they tracked him down so quickly?

JANE: That was so funny I had to stop and read it to Jim. Real life is so much stranger than fiction, isn’t it! I wouldn’t dare put something as silly as that in one of my novels.

I actually want to come back to recycling, but I haven’t quite finished with garbage and trash… I even have another joke for you!


Before You Die

March 26, 2014

Here, life has been busy in a good way. I’m working hard on what’s turning into quite a long piece for an anthology of stories set in S.M. Stirling’s “Change” alternate history. My story is set in and around the New Mexico malpais, west of Albuquerque, south of Grants and Acoma. Now that I’ve found my way into the story, the writing is moving along nicely. Good thing, since the due date is the end of March.

Bucket's Lists

Bucket’s Lists

Promotional wheels are beginning to roll for Artemis Awakening. I’ll be coming out to California over the first weekend in June to sign at Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego (June 6) and Borderlands Books in San Francisco (June 7). I’ll also have at least three signings in Albuquerque. Others elsewhere are possible. See my newly revised website,, for details and updates.

This past weekend, I was browsing some book catalogs and noticed a trend toward books telling you about things you shouldn’t miss out on before you die. The range was quite wide: places to visit, movies to see, songs (or entire albums) to listen to, foods to eat, pieces of art to see, various activities to try… Sometimes the number was modest as in “10 National Parks to See,” but more usually it was a dramatic 100 or even 1,000 items. Sometimes, instead of giving a number, the book presented a “bucket list” (as in “kick the bucket”). In most cases, the word “must” (or something similar) was included.

I have no idea where this trend originated. Certainly, when we hit the year 2000 there were any number of lists offering expert opinions as to what had been the best books or music or works of art or whatever of the last century or millennium or, even, in really ambitious cases, since the dawn of human civilization. However, these were presented as the opinions of a person or group, usually one that claimed some sort of expertise on the subject. These lists were presented, briefly argued about (especially regarding rankings or what was or was not included), and then, forgotten. As far as I can tell, very few of the people presenting these lists made any attempt to force their lists on anyone else. (An exception might be the use of “best books” lists to inform school curricula.)

However, implicit in these “before you die” lists is a sense of urgency. Whether the phrasing is “must do” or “try,” the implication is that, if you don’t follow these guidelines, your life will have been wasted and incomplete. For the last several days, I’ve been trying to figure out how I feel about this trend. Complicating the matter is an image I can’t get out of my head – that of a fellow actually trying to follow up on all these “must do” directives.

I see a person sitting on a sofa with a video game controller in his hand. (One book I came across was 1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die). In the other hand, he holds a novel that he glances at occasionally. A big screen television is playing a movie. (A window inset in the screen displays the video game.) He has earphones on and is listening to music. When we pull the image back, we can see that he is sitting in a recreational vehicle, speeding through Yellowstone or one of those “must see” places. An array of equipment intended for some of those “things you must try before you die” can be seen scattered around. Finally, long lists with a variety of big, red checkmarks are pinned to the walls.

Despite the chaos in the above image, I also find something positive about these lists. Certainly, there’s something admirable about trying to do something with one’s life, rather than just drifting through. I always found the phrase “Thank God It’s Friday” (shortened to TGIF) rather creepy. TGIF implied that life was restricted to a minor percentage of the week – Friday evening through sometime on Sunday, when work once again loomed its ugly head. Songs like “Everybody’s Working for the Weekend” reinforce the idea that we live to the fullest only a short period of time. This is also embraced in a lot of “rebel youth” music that implies that life is over when you hit that big 3-0.

In contrast to this attitude, these “must do” lists seem a whole lot more positive. Maybe you’re working a dead end job but if, while you’re doing it, you’re listening to a wide variety of music or an audio book, or seeking out a special food, or planning a trip that will expand your horizons, then you haven’t put your life on hold. Even something as simple as signing up for a “word a day” list (as several of my friends do) seems like a neat attempt to get the most out of every day. In this context, “must do” or “must try” becomes a way of living a vital, examined life – especially if you don’t just listen or play or see for no other reason than checking something off your list, but think about what you’re experiencing.

So, do these “must do” books make you feel as if you’re missing out on life or provide guideposts on how to live it more fully? Do you end up feeling stressed and overwhelmed because of everything you could (or should) be doing? Do you want someone else to provide a list, because they’ll have fresh ideas or approaches, or would you prefer to design a list on your own?

TT: Coming Out of the Cupboard

March 20, 2014

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Just page back one for another look at the complexities of characterization.  Then join me and Alan as we begin a look at the absorbing topic of stuff and where you put it.

 JANE: Alan, I enjoyed your most recent “wot I red on my hols” column (, but when you said that bit about how you and Robin had a big “clear out” and have “taken heaps of rubbish to the tip” you deliberately talked “British,”  didn’t you?

Cupboard or Cabinet?

Cupboard or Cabinet?

 ALAN: It wasn’t deliberately British. I was just saying what comes naturally and I was a little taken aback to find that the words were so strange to you. It just goes to show that we’re never going to run out of material for these Tangents. Something always pops up.

 JANE: Or, in this case, dumps down…

Okay, let me try some interpretation.  “Tip” is “dump,” right?   And, while we’re more likely to use “garbage” than “rubbish,” I get that one.  But having a clear out?  That’s just weird.

 ALAN: OK — let’s start with “clear out” since that one puzzled you the most. All it means is that we went through every room and looked in every cupboard to decide what was worth keeping and what wasn’t. So we “cleared out” the stuff we didn’t want.

 What would you say?

 JANE: I’d say we had “cleared out” the cabinets.  I wouldn’t turn the verb into a noun.  Still, I’m seeing a pattern here.  This is similar to saying you “did a baggies” when you and your friends were claiming rooms at your holiday cottage some weeks ago.  Leaving out that Americans don’t use the phrase “baggies” in any case, I would have said something closer to “First everyone bagged a room.”  (“Bagged” for “claimed” is sometimes used as slang, although I don’t think it’s very common these days.)

 There’s another interesting thing that came up in your explanation.  You spoke of emptying out “cupboards.”   I automatically “translated” that to “cabinets.”  It’s not that the word “cupboard” isn’t used here but, at least where I have lived, “cabinet” is much more common.

 (And, by the way, American English varies widely, so it’s completely possible that some of our readers use “cupboard” more commonly than I do.}

ALAN: Oh no – cabinets are quite different from cupboards. Generally speaking cabinets are glass fronted and they are used for displaying your collections of Wedgewood pottery and Georgian silver to visitors. My grandmother had a china cabinet of which she was extremely proud.

Cupboards can’t be seen into without opening the door, and they are for storing ordinary things in a higgledy-piggledy clutter. My kitchen cupboards are particularly frightening – I hate to think what Lovecraftian monsters may be lurking at the back, mutated by time and circumstance…

JANE:  Let’s see…  We’d call those glass-fronted thingies either “display cases” or “display cabinets.”   This past weekend, Jim and I were in a hardware store.  Someday we plan to replace our kitchen cabinets (cupboards, to you) and so I always look wistfully at the displays.  I noticed that many of the higher end models featured glassed in fronts.  These looked very stylish, but I found myself thinking that I wouldn’t want them in my kitchen.  We don’t quite go as far as Lovecraftian storage, but certainly the varied assortment of things we keep in some cabinets wouldn’t look very artistic if put on display.

So, what would you call a glass-fronted kitchen cupboard?  Would it become a cabinet by virtue of the glass?

ALAN:  Now there’s a conundrum. I’m not sure such things even exist (I don’t recall ever seeing them). Actually I rather hope they don’t exist, because I have absolutely no idea what to call them!

JANE:  Returning to cupboards…  I noticed in your account of clearing out, you mentioned a cupboard under the stairs.  From the amount of stuff you had in there, I suspect an American would have called that a “closet.”  In light of Harry Potter’s residency in such a place, this is an interesting point.  How large is your cupboard under the stairs?

ALAN: I always thought a closet was a place where you hung clothes? We’d call that a wardrobe… But from what you say, obviously a closet can be more than just a wardrobe.

Actually, it was the Harry Potter cupboard that started the whole clear out thing off. Ashleigh is 8 years old and Robin and I are her honourary Auntie and Uncle. Ever since she first found our Harry Potter cupboard, she’s been begging and pleading for a sleepover so that she could spend the night in it. Eventually her parents granted their permission, so we had to make room in the cupboard for her to get in and lie down. When everything is removed from it, it’s just about big enough for Ashleigh to stand upright at the tall end, though of course it slopes rapidly away to nothing at all at the narrow end. It’s ideal for storing junk – and that’s what we’ve been using it for. However once we got the junk out, there seemed little point in ever putting it back again. And that’s when we started the big clear out…

JANE: Ah, hah!  We had a storage areas like that in the houses in which I grew up (my current house doesn’t have any staircases) but these were still called “closets.”  They were simply bigger closets with weird space, so that small boxes went in the back and larger in the front.

I hope Ashleigh had fun.  You and Robin are really very nice.

Going back to wardrobes…  In American usage, the word is becoming archaic.  Where it is still in active use is when it is applied to freestanding furniture that serves as a closet (in this usage, meaning a storage place for clothing).  The first house I owned was in Virginia.  It was built before the American Civil War and had no closets.  (It was short of cupboards and cabinets as well.)  Therefore, it became necessary to go out and buy furniture in which to hang clothing.  This was a nuisance and eventually one of the rooms in the house became a sort of gigantic closet.  If I had stayed there, I would have built in clothes closets and probably cabinets and cupboards.  All the rooms were very large and one would hardly have noticed the loss of space.

But I moved to New Mexico instead…

ALAN: Very sensible of you. But if wardrobes are falling into disfavour, however do you manage to visit Narnia for your summer vacation?

JANE: Closets work just as well as wardrobes for Narnia visits.  The problem is finding the right sort of wood to build into the structure.  I loved that detail in the books.  It made the transport so perfectly reasonable!  That’s my favorite sort of fantasy, where there’s a reason, no matter how odd, for what happens.

Meanwhile, we’ve still got tips and dumps, rubbish and garbage, and other gnarly things to explore.  Let’s carry on with this next week!

One Person, Many Faces

March 19, 2014

Last week, as I wrote about character personalities, I realized that the topic has a whole lot more to it than the simple question that started me off.  Just to remind you, the question was, basically, “Do writers write characters with personalities like their own and, if so, can they develop beyond that point?”

One Person, Many Faces

One Person, Many Faces

My answer was, yes and yes, and I talked a little bit about why I thought so.  However, even as I was moving to the end, I realized that there was a lot more to writing realistic characters than this.  One thing that struck me was that it’s a rare person who is the same in all situations, with all sorts of people.  However, all too often, characters are one sort of person and react to all situations and people in the same way.

 Now, this isn’t always a bad thing.  I’m quite fond of Robert Parker’s novels about Spenser.   What kept me reading them through the last novel Parker wrote before his death was my fondness for the characters – especially the core three: Spenser, Hawk, and Susan.  Of these three, Spenser and Hawk could be said to be the sort of people who react in the same manner to all situations.  They’re tough, reliable, socially savvy, and smart.  Spenser is both less tough and less smart than Hawk – Hawk never would have gotten shot in the way Spenser does in Small Vices – but that’s okay.  Spenser has other qualities that may make him stronger than Hawk overall.   But, whether faced with a big problem or a small one, they react in a consistent fashion.

 There is a comfort to reading about characters like this.  Mystery and thriller protagonists in particular are often of this type.  No matter their quirks or shortcomings, they’ll come through in the end, upholding whatever their variation on justice might be.

 Maybe there are “real” people like this, too, but if so, I haven’t met many.  Most real people change according to who they are with and the circumstances in which they find themselves.  One good example is what I’ll call the “wolf pack alpha” type.  This is the sort of person who is usually at the core of a social group.  Like a good wolf pack alpha, they’re only dominant in the best sort of way – that is, they arrange situations for the greater benefit of the social group.  Someone only observing them in that context might think them strong, confident, and self-assured.

 However, change the situation, add in someone who this sort of  “alpha” views as dominant over them – a boss, a potential benefactor, someone they see as more important than themselves  — and they become not a leader but a follower.  Suddenly, instead of setting up the situation for the good of the group as a whole, they are more interested in winning the favor of this new alpha.  In a worst case scenario, the former alpha may begin to bully subordinates who once could trust in their leader’s protection.

 That’s why I call this type a “wolf pack alpha” because, as in a wolf pack, behavior changes according to who is perceived to hold the power.  But wolf pack alphas are not bullies (except in certain situations).  They really do care about the strength of their group because they perceive themselves within a group context.

 Bullies are perhaps the perfect type of the character whose behavior shifts according to the situation and their perception of power.  Spenser and Hawk are not above beating someone up if that’s the best way to handle a situation – but this attitude does not change depending on who is watching or what the penalty might be.  A bully, by contrast, changes like the wind.   One of the best bullies I’ve ever encountered in fiction is Hakeswill from the Sharpe stories by Bernard Cornwell.  When the commanders are around, Hakewill is militarily correct, even a touch groveling.  However, when the bosses are absent, he is cruel to the point of sadism.  The actor who brought this character to the screen handled his role so well that – I’ll admit it – I was continuously on edge in those stories in which he appeared.

 Bullies are common in middle grade and YA fiction.  Lots of the tension in the Harry Potter stories derives from various bullies – both adult and younger.  However, bullies are less often used in adult fiction, except for the obvious, swaggering thugs.  As I see it, a good bully is often a smart character, if rarely likeable.  An adult bully – even a thug – needs to be careful of the consequences of being caught.

 Sometimes situation is what changes a character’s personality.  Jack Aubrey in Patrick O’Brien’s wonderful sea sagas is exactly the man you want in command of your ship.  However, put him on land – especially if matters of pretty women or money are in the offing – and trouble will arise.

 Another way in which character personalities can change from situation to situation are patterns based on longtime relationships and, to some extent, differences in age.  I’ve seen many a confident, even blustering, adult, change entirely when a parent is present.  The change might be something as minor as a person who normally swears a lot or dresses provocatively moderating that behavior in a parent’s presence.  It might be as drastic as a resumption of subordinate behavior on the part of someone who is normally dominant.

 The old television show WKRP in Cincinnati used this to good comic effect in the relationship between Mr. Carlson and his mother.  The impending arrival of “Mother” is enough to turn Carlson into a quivering jelly.  However, as the series progressed, Carlson – in part because of the confidence instilled in him by becoming part of the WKRP team – learns to stand up to his mother, a change that makes both him and her happier people.

 If you’re looking for models of characters who change according to who they are with, you can do far worse than indulge in the various stories of P.G. Wodehouse.  Bertie Wooster and his “man” Jeeves are Wodehouse’s best known characters, but the pattern extends throughout Wodehouse’s canon.

 Confident and even dashing in the company of his peers, Bertie is rendered spineless by his Aunt Agatha.  His Aunt Dahlia gets him repeatedly into trouble.  However, neither Aunt Agatha nor Aunt Dahlia have any actual power over Bertie.  He is independently wealthy, has his own place of residence, and a large social circle.

 Aunt Agatha dominates him because she always has done so and Bertie has not changed beyond those childhood patterns.  Except for Aunt Dahlia’s occasional threats to withhold the pleasure of her dinner table, she is more likely to convince Bertie to participate in one her of wild schemes by appealing to his  strong affection for her.  Bertie’s friends also have no real hold over him, but the plaintive cry “We were at school together” is enough to get him in over his ears.  So in a single short story, Bertie may be the suave man of the world, the quivering child, the exasperated peer, and the goggle-eyed romantic.  One man, many faces…

 Not every character needs to be developed in such detail, but certainly protagonists need a bit more fleshing out.  Even a relative monolith like Spenser has endearing little details that make him seem more real.  After all, who would expect a former boxer and cop turned private eye, to be a gourmet chef?

TT: Mary — Imprisoned, Exiled, and Executed

March 13, 2014

Great News!  The Thursday Tangents have the honor of being on the final ballot for New Zealand’s 2014 Sir Julius Vogel Awards, in the Best Fan Writing category.  Needless to say, Alan and I are both quite pleased.

For the Wednesday Wandering this week, page back one for a look at the role of personality in writing. Now, without further delay, on to the tragic end of Mary Queen of Scots.

Ill Omens and Portents

Ill Omens and Portents

JANE: We’ve been having a lot of fun examining the colorful life of Mary Queen of Scots…  Sadly, we are about to arrive at its conclusion.  Ready?

ALAN: Yes, indeed.

JANE: After being held prisoner in Loch Leven Castle for some months, Mary, no longer queen of anything, escaped with the assistance of the Hamiltons, who believed that, even disgraced and dethroned, Mary still had political value.  They took her to Hamilton Palace and, again, an army was raised.

But Mary’s luck wasn’t in.  Again her army was defeated, this time by her own half-brother, Moray.

Desperate now, she crossed into England and, on May 1568, threw herself on the mercy of Queen Elizabeth.

ALAN: Unfortunately there wasn’t much mercy to be had.

JANE: Elizabeth’s informal motto was “Strike or be stricken.”  Mary may have forgotten that she was a threat the Elizabeth’s throne, but Elizabeth never did.  She immediately had the former queen of both Scotland and France imprisoned.

ALAN: Elizabeth had a formal motto as well. It appears on her coat of arms, Semper Eadem, which translates as Always the same. She was telling the world (against all the evidence!) that she would hold an even course in her whole life and all her actions.

JANE:  Very neat.  Sadly, both for herself and for Elizabeth’s desire for stability, Mary did not cease being a source of turmoil, both in Scotland and in England.

There were signs and omens that all was not well.  “In  this time, there was ane monstrous fish in Loch Fyne, havand greit ein in the heid thairof, and at sumtymis wald stand abune the watir as heich as the mast of ane schippe; and the said had upoun the heid thairof two crowins” (Diurnal of Occurents for 1570).

ALAN: Ah! They must have spotted the monster just as it was moving to its new home in Loch Ness.

JANE:  Precisely what I thought. There were other signs and portents but, even disregarding these, things did not go well in Scotland.  The first two regents for the very young King James VI, Moray (Mary’s half-brother) and Lennox were murdered.

Meanwhile, Mary’s supporters, calling themselves the Queen’s Lords, seized Edinburgh Castle and held it with military force.  Finally, in 1573, the current Regent, Morton – an avowed enemy of Mary – used heavy cannon, imported from England, to capture the castle.  However, Morton was overthrown in 1578, impeached, and executed.

Want to guess the charge?

ALAN: I don’t know. Treason perhaps?

JANE: The charge was that Morton had, fourteen years before, murdered Mary’s first husband, Lord Darnley!

ALAN: Oh, my goodness. That sad and sorry story never goes away, does it?

JANE: At this point, history in Scotland begins to leave Mary behind, so maybe we should return to her as she bides in durance not-so-vile in England.

ALAN: Elizabeth was less than thrilled to have a potential focal point of Catholic unrest in England. She used the doubts about Mary’s complicity in Darnley’s death as an excuse to keep Mary under very close watch in various stately homes and castles.

Mary was allowed her own domestic servants and it took 30 carts to carry her belongings from house to house. Her bed linen was changed every day and she had her own chefs to prepare the meals, which were served to her on silver plates.

Mary’s captivity was not onerous, but nevertheless it was very real.

JANE: I agree, gilded bars do not make a place any less a cage.  The woman who had been queen of two lands, married three times, and had borne a son, now lived on someone else’s sufferance.   Her son was lost to her.  Elizabeth refused to see her, knowing that it would be much harder to deal with Mary if she did.  Whatever else, Mary was apparently quite charismatic.

So Elizabeth settled for spies and ignored Mary’s pleas.

ALAN: One of Mary’s watchers was Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s spymaster. Mary was well aware that all the letters she wrote or received passed through Walsingham’s hands before they were delivered so she was careful to keep her correspondence innocuous. However, Walsingham set a trap. Towards the end of 1585, Mary was moved to Chartley Castle. She was misled into thinking that letters could be securely smuggled in and out of the castle in a beer keg. Walsingham intercepted all the “secure” letters, of course.

Mary soon made contact with Anthony Babington, the ringleader of a plot to assassinate Elizabeth and put Mary on the throne. Now the writing was on the wall.

JANE: And blood-stained writing it was indeed…   Long years of imprisonment were drawing to their end.

ALAN: Mary was moved to Fotheringay Castle and was put on trial for treason. She was convicted and sentenced to death.

Despite the sentence being passed, Elizabeth refused to sign the death warrant. She felt that the killing of a queen set an unfortunate precedent. She was afraid of the possible consequences to herself should Mary’s son, James, ally himself with the Catholic European powers and successfully invade England. However, she gave in to pressure and finally signed the warrant on 1st February 1587.

On the evening of 7 February 1587, at Fotheringay Castle, Mary was told she would be executed the next day.

JANE: I’ve heard that the execution itself was a mixture of farce and pity but, other than something about her dog being involved, I don’t know the details.

ALAN: It took two blows to sever her head from her body. The executioner held the head aloft declaring “God Save the Queen!”. But the auburn hair he was holding was a wig and Mary’s head fell to floor revealing her short, grey hair.

JANE: Oh!  Terrible!

ALAN: The queen’s dog, a small terrier, was hiding among her voluminous skirts. After the execution, it came out of hiding and snuggled up to Mary’s body, covering itself with her blood. It refused to leave her side. It was eventually forcibly removed and washed.

All Mary’s clothes, the block, and everything touched by her blood was burned so as frustrate the relic hunters.

JANE: Well…  At least they didn’t kill the dog and it got a bath.  Horrible, though.

ALAN: I don’t know if you know much about the English folk music scene, but in 1968, Sandy Denny wrote a hauntingly beautiful song about Mary’s life and death at Fotheringay castle. The song is called, quite simply, Fotheringay. I’ve listened to it countless times and it never fails to move me:

Tomorrow at this hour she will be far away
Much farther than these islands
Or the lonely Fotheringay

JANE: Yet, although later generations would pity her, her son James, now reigning in Scotland and with an eye on Elizabeth’s throne, sent only a formal protest – this despite the fact that his subjects, mellowed by nineteen years without the reality of Mary, were willing to go to war.

ALAN: Perhaps James knew that his day would come. As indeed it did.

JANE: Yes.  We’ve mentioned that, upon Elizabeth’s death, he became James I of England.  Now, although I’d like to return to the English monarchy at some future date, I want to talk trash.  Next time?

Where the Personalities Grow

March 12, 2014

First the good news…  A gallery is now up featuring submissions for the SF/F cover art contest for which I’m sponsoring one of the prizes.  Take a look at and click on the big “View Our Submissions” button.   Remember, the contest is for amateurs and there’s still plenty of time to submit a piece.  If you’re interested in why a writer would get involved with an art contest, there’s a bit about that on the site, too.  Or you can read my WW for 1-29-14 for a slightly different take on the topic.

Many Personalities.  One Writer.

Many Personalities. One Writer.

Life continues throwing curve balls to smash my dreams of writerly peace.  Late last week, the water line to my house broke.  Happily, some excellent plumbers made certain we continued to have water and, as of early this week, we have a new high-tech water line.

Last week’s WW about designing aliens generated some interesting comments, both on the site and off.  One of the “ghosts” found herself thinking about a type of alien closer to home: those creatures we call humans.  She wondered whether the personality of the writer makes a big difference in how the writer expresses the personalities of different characters.  She also wondered how, if it did, the writer could learn work beyond such limitations.

I think that writers’ personalities do influence how writers develop their characters.  Initially, in fact, how the characters process situations is likely to be similar to how the writer would do so.  If the writer is introspective, then the character is likely to be so.  If the character is impulsive or temperamental, ditto.  Nor is this always a bad thing.  There’s a certain “rightness” about such characters.  Moreover, there is a type of reader who seems to want to believe that, even when reading fiction, they are actually reading thinly shrouded autobiography.  Nothing seems to excite this sort of reader more than finding out that a writer “really” plays the bagpipes or is an expert on wines or practices a particular martial art, just like the protagonist does.

If I’m writing a story with an ensemble cast, my characters tend to discuss events.  I don’t doubt that this is because that’s what I would do in a similar situation.  However, I also write this way because I think it’s a lot more interesting for the reader to be part of a discussion than to be told by an abstract narrative voice: “After much discussion, the characters decided to raid the lair of the Bat King.”  Especially if there had been some disagreement as to the wisdom of confronting this awesome monster, as a reader, I’d like to know why they made that choice.

To this day, for example, the council scene in The Fellowship of the Ring is one of my favorite parts of the novel.  Not only do we find out why a certain course of action was chosen, we learn a lot about how various characters reacted to the decision to attempt to destroy the One Ring.  Do I like this scene because Tolkien wrote it well or because it resonates with my sense of what’s right?  Good question.

For a writer to grow, the writer must eventually move outside of his or her own narrow frame of reference.  As much as we’d like to believe so, everyone is not like us.  Different people react to different situations, well, differently.

This was brought home to me afresh some years ago when I ended up being the nexus of a rather nasty situation.  I was extremely frustrated because none of those involved were sitting down and talking as a group.  Instead, people were phoning each other or, occasionally, e-mailing each other.   As a nexus, I heard a lot of different points of view and, eventually – because it was physically impossible to get everyone into one place –  I composed an e-mail outlining the situation as I saw it, placing the blame for starting the problem firmly where it belonged.

I thought clarifying the situation would enable matters to be reset and we could all get back to work.  Thank heavens I ran my proposed e-mail by a close friend who was also involved in the situation.  Her response was to say calmly, “And what do you think this will do?  Do you expect them to say, ‘Right, we’ve behaved badly.  Sorry.’”

I admitted that this was precisely what I expected…  After all, I’d outlined the facts neatly and the facts pretty neatly showed how the situation had developed.  In the background I came from, this would have at the very least led to an admission of how the misunderstanding had developed and a chance to start the discussion afresh and maybe repair the damage.  My friend said, “Jane, that’s because you come from a family of lawyers.  Not everyone accepts such discussion in that way.  You’re more likely to make everyone defensive and things will get worse.”

What an eye opener!  What a view into a different mindset!  What a great thing for a writer!

The e-mail was never sent but, to this day, when writing characters I remind myself to delve into personalities and insecurities, to play with how in certain social situations such illogical things as having been an insecure wallflower in tenth grade might make a currently competent business executive behave like a junior high school student.

So, short of cultivating conflict and studying reactions, how can a writer expand his or her psyche to embrace personalities other than his or her own?

One way is to make a study of the people close to you and try to understand not only how but why they react as they do to certain situations.  Agatha Christie’s autobiography is far from being (as are the autobiographies of so many writers) a thinly disguised, “How I Became the Famous Writer I am Today.”  In fact, page for page, she talks very little about her writing, and, when she does, it’s almost always in the context of some other aspect of her life.

However, for a reader who has read a considerable amount of Agatha Christie’s work, her autobiography holds revelations as to how and why she kept returning to certain types of people in her writing.  The attractive ne’er do well owes a great deal to her brother.  Her abiding interest in older people was clearly influenced by the two elderly aunts who lived with her family.  Her ex-husband, Archie, may be the reason she writes betrayers so well.  Her father provides the affectionate template for characters who cannot adjust to the times.  And, of course, her deep understanding of the archeologist comes from her second husband, Max Mallowan.

However, Dame Agatha did not merely recycle her life into story-shaped jigsaw puzzles.  She made the effort to understand these people (and many others), to learn what motivated them, and then to use that to create rich suites of characters whose interactions – no matter how superficially illogical – become logical when you get into their heads.

Some writers make the jump from their own point of view more easily than do others.  Those who are fascinated by the other, the alien, the stranger – whatever term you choose to give it – are more likely to start this exploration earlier but, for a writer to grow, I believe that he or she must eventually develop, as did Kipling’s Kim, two (or more) sides to their head.

There’s more to it, but I’ll stop here so you folks can get a word in!

TT: Mary — Widowed, Remarried, and Worse

March 6, 2014

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Page back one for the secret of where to find really alien aliens.  Then join me and Alan as we discuss the more  events in the tragic life of Mary Queen of Scots.

JANE: Lord Darnley’s murder may have eliminated a husband Mary no longer loved.  However, rather than solving her problems, his death only added new ones.

Mary and Bothwell

Bothwell and Mary

ALAN: Do tell!

JANE:  Gladly!  Part of the problem was that although no one ever proved beyond a doubt who arranged for Darnley to be strangled (and then blown up), Mary’s visit to him shortly before his death certainly looked suspicious, especially since Mary and Darnley had been increasingly estranged from each other since he murdered her secretary, Riccio, in front of her (thus ruining a perfectly good dinner party).

I don’t think anyone thought Mary herself had strangled Darnley or planted the bomb, but that visit didn’t look good.  Suspicion fell heavily on James Hepburn, the fourth Earl of Bothwell.   He even went to trial for the murder, but was acquitted.

ALAN: Bothwell’s trial lasted for only seven hours. It could not have been a thorough examination of the evidence. It seems clear that the fix was in!

JANE: Perhaps because the queen was grateful?

ALAN: The trial was certainly an odd affair, in both senses of the word. Even before Darnley’s death there had been rumours that Mary and Bothwell were lovers. Certainly they were very close friends – they had first met each other when Mary was living in France. And then, a few days after Bothwell’s acquittal, he “abducted” Mary and took her to his ancestral home Dunbar Castle. I put rabbit ears around the word abducted because most contemporary accounts claim that Mary was more than willing to be taken away…

However, the diplomat James Melville, who was present at Dunbar Castle, claims that once Bothwell got Mary into his lair, he raped her –  “…[he] had ravished her and lain with her against her will”.

Whatever the truth of it, she must have forgiven him because just a few weeks later, they got married.

JANE: The marriage was only eight weeks after Darnley’s death.   Prince Hamlet (had he attended) would certainly have commented on the widow’s haste.

Bothwell was a Protestant and they married in the Protestant rite, but for some reason Queen Mary’s subjects weren’t happy.

ALAN: Well, the Catholics didn’t recognise the validity of the Protestant marriage. Also, Bothwell was divorced, and that didn’t sit well with the Catholics either. Both the Catholics and the Protestants were scandalised that Mary had married the man who had been accused of the murder Darnley. The legal system may have (somewhat dubiously) proclaimed his innocence, but the court of popular opinion was not convinced.

JANE: This third marriage was the beginning of the end for Mary, both as a reigning queen and as a living person.

ALAN: Yes, indeed. A group of Scottish peers raised an army and confronted Mary and Bothwell at Carberry Hill. No battle took place because most of Mary’s army deserted her. She was arrested and imprisoned  in a castle on an island in the middle of Loch Leven. There she miscarried twins. A few days later she abdicated, and her one-year-old son became James VI of Scotland.

JANE: One of my sources notes that Mary was publicly humiliated as well – led through the streets of Edinburgh wearing a short red petticoat.  Given that the heavy gowns worn by fashionable women at that time turned the lower half of the body into a solid bell, rather than anything vaguely human, this was nearly as bad as being stripped naked.

Even if she hadn’t abdicated, Mary never would have been able to command respect again.

 What happened to Bothwell?  Did he get off any better?

ALAN: Not in the least. He was driven into exile and eventually ended up in Denmark where he was imprisoned in Dragsholm Castle. He was held in appalling conditions which drove him into insanity. He died, raving, in 1578.

The pillar to which he was chained for ten years or more still exists. There is a deep circular groove in the stone floor around it where he dragged his chains as he walked around in never ending circles…

JANE:  I didn’t know about that.  I got the shivers, just reading about it.  His enemies must have hated him fiercely.

Mary certainly did better than that.

However, like everything else in her life, there are lots of interesting and convoluted details.  How about we save them for next time?

The Alien Sea

March 5, 2014

AA2 is now in my editor’s hands.  My accountant has my tax stuff.  I’m slowly shifting back into thinking like a person who creates stories, rather than being in editorial mode or business mode.  Of all the aspects of my profession, I like being a storyteller best, so much so that it tends to color most aspects of my life.

Underwater Alien

Underwater Alien

Take this weekend.  Our friends Walter Jon Williams and Kathy Hedges came over for dinner.  After green chile chicken enchiladas and salad, but before (and later with) brownies, we settled down to view Walter’s pictures from his recent trip to Indonesia.  Walter scuba dives and the trip was centered around his hobby, so the majority of the pictures were taken underwater and featured various brilliantly colored, often peculiarly-shaped, forms of sea life.

As I probably don’t need to tell you, Walter also writes science fiction.   Given our shared interests, inevitably, alien life forms entered the conversation.  After viewing various types of sea turtles and octopi, nudibranchs (lots and lots of these), giant clams, miniature crabs, striped eels, infinite-armed starfish, and bustling cuttlefish – not to mention fish that walked, “flew,” and performed elaborate wriggling dances, (as well as a few that merely swam), we all agreed that SF writers who desired to create a truly alien race would do well to depart land and delve into the sea in search of models.

I, for one, would be seriously tempted by the octopus – and not as the monster of horror.  They’re so very appealing, with their flexible bodies, camouflage coloration, ink clouds, and big eyes.  The problem of digits for manipulating their environment is neatly handled – or perhaps I should say “tentacled” – by their eight limbs.   I’d enjoy getting into the psychology of a creature who would not have our restrictive ideas of “front and back,” for whom an “impassible” barrier would need to be something far more dense than what stops us.

And that’s even before evolving my alien from the octopus template, much as humans are evolved from primates.  Could there be an effective land octopus?  Perhaps an amphibious one.  Would they take a page from the hermit crab and design elaborate shells?  Mecha-octopi from the deep…  Maybe they’d be naturals for space travel.

Compared to some of the creatures Walter showed us, octopi are practically “normal.”  But there would be a problem with evolving aliens from, say, nudibranchs.  For one, how many readers have ever heard of a nudibranch?  Before Walter showed them to us, I only knew about them because a friend of mine belonged to a yarn club that used the coloration of different types of nudibranchs as the basis for a challenge to yarn dyers.  When a writer starts out needing to lecture the readership, it’s a dicey situation.  So aliens often are modeled on creatures that can be quickly shorthanded for the reader: reptiles, cats, and canines for the “good guys,” spiders and other insects (and often reptiles) for the “bad guys.”

Even when a writer tries hard to keep the aliens alien, often they’re reduced to the nearest terrestrial equivalent.  I am passionately attached to the various alien races in Larry Niven’s “Known Space” stories, but I can’t help but be saddened by how the Kzinti are often reduced to “tigers in space.”  I know why…  The “real” Kzinti aren’t nearly as attractive.  The epithet “rat cat” frequently applied to them in the stories is a reminder that their tails are pink and naked.  But tigers in space look so much better on the book jacket and, in time, the depiction colors the interpretation of the creature.

Larry Niven often used psychology as much as biology as a model for his aliens.  I adore the cowardly Puppeteers.  The paranoid Trinocs were fun, too.  Then there are weird Outsiders, who sail between the stars without need of ships.  Their motivations may be mysterious, but Niven never leaves the reader in doubt that the Outsiders have motivations.  Still, it’s the rat-cats that everyone comes back to, maybe because they can be more easily understood.

It’s been a long time since I read any of C.J. Cherryh’s “Chanur” books, but this was another good take on the “cat-like” alien.  In this case, she used the idea that in a “real” lion pride the males are idle studs.  It’s the females who go out and get in the dinner.  Evolve this forward and you have the Chani and their culture, up to and including shortcomings that mirror (perhaps deliberately) those of the Kzinti.

If I had to pick my favorites among more recent aliens, I’d go straight to Vernor Vinge.  His great, fat books need to be fat because there’s no “shorthanding” when he creates an alien culture.  The Tines, featured in A Fire Upon the Deep are wonderful.  Superficially canine, they are actually group minds, a development that permits them to get around the restrictions of not having “hands.”  Instead they have mouths…  lots of mouths, and a lot more range and coordination than the average human.

In Vernor’s A Deepness in the Sky he explores (among other things) the human desire to see the “other” as some variation of ourselves.  The alien “Spiders” are anything but human, but over and over again the humans who interact with them need to fight the conflicting impulses to see them either as terrifying monsters or as “just like us.”  Even at the end of the novel, the human who has come closest to understanding Spiders on their own terms finds herself forced to remember how physical orientation alone is enough to create distortions in interpretation: “…human bodies extended upward, and Spider bodies sideways.  If she didn’t keep a downward ‘view’ she missed out on ‘facial’ expressions…”

Great stuff!

So creating an alien – especially if it is to be used as a character, not just window-dressing – is a real challenge.  On the one hand, its needs to be alien enough not to just seem like, say a Japanese samurai in a fur suit – and on the other it needs to resonate enough with the reader that there can be sympathy, interest, and enthusiasm.  Or that’s how I see it.  Now, how would an octopus invite a human in to visit its house when it gets inside by slipping through the keyhole?