Archive for January, 2016

TT: Burning Choices

January 7, 2016

JANE: So, Alan, last week I promised you a story tie-in to our discussion on coal.  Here it is…

Antique Dollhouse Coal Scuttle and Other Inspirations

Antique Dollhouse Coal Scuttle and Other Inspirations

Some years ago, my friend Paul gave me a set of cassette tapes featuring The Shadow radio dramas, starring Orson Welles in the title role.  The company that produced these tapes included the commercials for the show’s sponsor as well.

This was a good choice.  Somehow, hearing a deep-voiced male enthusiastically touting “Blue Coal, the finest Pennsylvania anthracite,” placed the stories in a historical context and added verisimilitude to the experience.

ALAN: Was it really blue? I always think of coal as being black.

JANE: Apparently, it was tinted somehow, because the commercials stress this, saying things like (I paraphrase) “You’ll know it by its distinctive blue color.”

Did the English get into coloring coal or stressing specific brands?

ALAN: We didn’t colour it, but there were certainly specific types of coal that you could buy. Anthracite was the best and the most expensive. It burned well and gave off a lot of heat. The cheapest, right at the bottom of the scale, was nutty slack, which was really just coal dust with small lumps of rubbishy coal in it.

JANE: “Nutty slack” is a great term…  I like it.

ALAN: But coal has another literary connection – have you ever read The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley?

JANE: I have, indeed.  In my opinion, it’s a rather brutal book.

ALAN: In retrospect, I think that’s true. But as a small child, I rather enjoyed it. The story concerns a boy called Tom who works for a chimney sweep. One day the sweep sends him up the chimney and he somehow falls out into a river where he is transformed into a water baby and has lots of adventures. I was mightily impressed by the story and next time we had our chimney swept I volunteered to be sent up it to clean out the hard-to-reach nooks and crannies. The chimney sweep looked puzzled and rejected my offer. I was very disappointed.

JANE: I’m sure you were.  I remember how Michael Banks was very eager to assist the chimney sweep in one of the Mary Poppins novels.  Hmm…  That’s another literary connection.  I bet they were using coal fires, too.  If it was mentioned, I probably glossed over it an assumed a wood fire.  We do bring our own lives to the books we read.

I’ve had the chimney at my house swept a time or two, but I admit, I felt no desire to participate.

ALAN: I always found it quite exciting. The chimney sweep would come round every six months or so. I would watch him in total fascination. He would wedge his brush a short way up the chimney. Then he’d drape sheets around the fireplace to stop the soot covering everything in the room. The handle of the brush poked out through the sheet and he would start to push it up the chimney. Every so often, as the handle began to disappear from view, he’d attach a flexible rod to lengthen the handle so that he could push it further. Eventually the brush would be poking out of the top of the chimney. The sweep would then reverse the process, pulling the brush down and removing the extension rods one by one. Great clouds of soot would billow down from the chimney and (hopefully) be caught in the sheets.

JANE: I don’t recall anything nearly that elaborate when I had my chimney attended to.  Goodness!

ALAN: Oh believe me, the elaborate precautions were very necessary. An unbelievably huge amount of soot would come down from the chimney. I shudder to think what the room might have looked like if the sheets weren’t there to catch the soot.

When the chimney sweep was finished, he’d clean up the soot as best he could, refold his sheets and take his brush off to the next job. The sheets were never completely effective and my mother would always have to spend quite some time restoring the room to its pristine glory after the chimney sweep left.

JANE: Ah!  That reminds me of another bit of coal-related trivia.  Did you know that spring cleaning was directly related to the use of coal (and to a lesser extent, wood) as fuel?  By the end of a heating season, the house would be distinctly sooty, so as soon as the weather warmed sufficiently for fires not to be needed, out would come the heavy-cleaning materials.

Now that coal and fires are no longer the primary sources of heat – at least here – spring cleaning is a ritual carried on out of habit, rather than from need.  Do you want to guess when – according to statistics based on sales of cleaning products – is now the time of year when most serious housecleaning is done?

ALAN: I don’t know. I’m very lazy and I tend not to do spring cleaning. So tell me, when am I supposed to do it now?

JANE: In late autumn, early winter, in preparation for the holiday season!  In other words, a complete reverse from the days of coal.

Given the popularity of steampunk these days, I think it would be useful for me to know more about the practical details of coal use.  How does one light a coal fire anyhow?  I’d think it would be really hard to get a rock to start burning.

ALAN: Yes, it is. You need quite a high temperature. You have to sneak up on the coal when it’s not looking and take it by surprise. My father had a daily ritual for lighting the fire. He’d begin with single sheets of newspaper. He’d roll each one up into a cylinder then he’d curl it around itself and loop the ends over in a knot to stop it unravelling. He called these paper bundles “firelighters.” He’d put a layer of firelighters in the bottom of the fireplace and lay some sticks of wood over them. Then finally he’d pile a layer of coal on top of the wood.

Once the fireplace was prepared, he’d light a spill – that’s a thin splinter of wood about eight inches long. He’d push the spill into the heart of the fire to start the paper burning. The paper would act like tinder and ignite the wood which in turn would set fire to the coal.

JANE: Did your dad make his own spills, too?

ALAN: No, he didn’t. He just bought them from the shops. They were dyed in multiple colours – blue, green, red and purple. I used to enjoy weaving them together into multicoloured sheets, much to my father’s annoyance. We kept our spills on the mantelpiece in a small wooden barrel with an open top. There was a plaque inset into the barrel which claimed that it was made of wood taken from HMS Warspite.

JANE: That’s cool!  Was it an antique?

ALAN: It must have been quite old – I’ve just checked, and the last wooden ship to bear that name was built in 1807 and was finally decommissioned in 1846. My grandparents had an identical barrel, so I suspect that they were probably bought as a pair.

JANE:  Seems quite logical.  So, did the different color spills burn differently, or were the colors simply ornamental?

ALAN: No, the colours were just there to make them look pretty. Once the fire was well alight, it would burn away merrily all day as long as you remembered to keep feeding it coal.

JANE: Did you keep running out to the shed all day to get more coal?

ALAN: No – spare coal was kept by the fire in a coal scuttle. Ours was a pot-bellied bucket which had three small legs that it sat on. The scuttle would be filled up last thing at night, just before my father went to bed, so that it was ready for the morning.

We used a pair of tongs to pick up pieces of coal from the scuttle and feed them to the fire. We also had a poker which we used to push the coal around in the fireplace so as to make sure that the air could get at it and keep the fire going.

If the coal got too tightly packed or too full of ash, the fire would be starved of oxygen and go out. We also had a dust pan and brush to sweep up any mess we made. We kept all these implements in a huge brass casing from an artillery shell. It was my mother’s pride and joy and she polished it until it gleamed like gold.

JANE: Between the spill container made from a warship and the artillery shell, your fireplace had a distinctly military flare.

Jim and I have a similar set of tools by our wood-burning fireplace.  However, they’re on a rack, not in a nifty container like your mom’s.  Since we haven’t made a fire for quite a while, most of the time the fireplace tools simply serve as something for the cats to play slap-paw around.

ALAN: Well, now that we’ve got a good fire going, there’s a trend I’ve noticed in modern literary criticism/reviewing that is starting to burn me up. Would you like to talk about it next time?

JANE: You bet…  Though I wonder if we can somehow tie it to coal?

Text vs Expectations

January 6, 2016

When is reading like winter weather?

I’m not sure I’m putting that right, but let me muddle my way in…

Lobo of Light, courtesy of River of Lights display

Lobo of Light, from River of Lights display

It’s always neat when someone contacts me to let me know they’re reading one of my works.  Whether it’s a newly released book or one of my older ones that this person has just discovered (thus “new” in the sense that the New World was “new” to the Europeans), something about the opening  segments of the work has stirred enough enthusiasm that the reader has gone to the trouble of letting me know.

While I enjoy knowing that something I’ve written has stirred up that level of excitement and anticipation, I often wonder what the end reaction will be.  As those of you who read my works know, I rarely write the “usual” story.  What do I mean by this?  Well, let me give an example.

Many years ago, I was doing a signing for one of the Firekeeper books.  I don’t think it was as early as Through Wolf’s Eyes, but it might have been.  In any case, a couple – I’d guess they were in their twenties – chanced by.  The young woman was interested in the books, and asked me what they were about.

I gave a thumbnail sketch, mentioning the competition for the position of King Tedric’s official heir, and how Earl Kestrel, who was the only major noble without a candidate to back, went looking for King Tedric’s youngest son, Barden, only to find a settlement destroyed by fire.  Soon after confirming that many of the settlers had died, Earl Kestrel and his group encounter a young woman who claimed to have been raised by wolves.

At this point, the young man cut in and, with an evident sneer in his voice, said, “And, of course, she turns out to be the missing princess.”   I replied with deceptive mildness (I was actually pretty peeved), “You might be surprised.”

I can’t recall if the young woman actually purchased a copy or if she let her boyfriend’s sneer divert her.  I hope she did end up reading the book.  She (and especially he) would have come in for a surprise or two.

So, whenever someone picks up one of my books and lets me know how excited they are when they’ve only read a few chapters, I always feel strange.  Unless the reader is familiar with my tendency to turn tropes sideways, he or she is probably going to not have those expectations met.  Whether this is enjoyable or not has more to do with what that reader wants than with what I’ve written.

What does this have to do with winter weather?  I don’t know how it is where you live, but in the part of New Mexico where I reside, winter weather is very unpredictable.  The worst snowstorm we’ve had in the years I’ve been here (at a conservative measurement, we had fifteen inches) was on a day where light flurries were predicted.

I think that reading one of my books is a lot like New Mexico weather.  You can definitely count on a few things, but don’t expect the plot to follow neatly along the usual tropes.  The young man and young woman who meet in chapter one may or may not (but probably not) end up in love.  The action will not be interrupted for a routine sex scene.  Fight scenes will only be detailed if something in the course of the action will add to your understanding of the characters or provide some other crucial detail.

Honestly, is anything more empty than a fight scene where you know the protagonist will be victorious?  Oh, yeah, I know what.  A car chase.  That’s pretty vapid, too.

Funny thing is, a lot of that empty action does a great job (at least for some readers and a surprising number of reviewers) of masquerading as thrilling content.  For me, it’s the equivalent to the TV weather announcer getting all excited about snow that hasn’t fallen, that may not fall, and that, in fact, isn’t really an issue until it has fallen.

I don’t mind a plot I can predict as long as I enjoy the journey.  I had the basic plots of Libba Bray’s first two “Diviners” novels accurately predicted relatively early on.  That didn’t matter, since she did some great things with characters and setting.  I enjoy a good classic mystery novel, even though the expectation is that the detective (professional or amateur) will solve the crime.  Why?  The details of the investigation, how the pieces fall together, are interesting in themselves.

However, when – as is too often the case in epic fantasy, the new urban fantasy, much military SF, and increasingly some sorts of YA Fantasy – the story is nothing more than a recombining of usual tropes, I’m not likely to stick with it beyond the first book.  In the end, I feel as if I’ve listened to the weather forecast, cancelled my plans, bundled up, and been met with heavy clouds but nothing to get excited about.

What’s sad for me is when readers are disappointed in one of my books because they had their expectations set and didn’t find them met in the text.

I guess my books are more like wolves made from light, chanced upon on a winter’s night, unexpected, but clearly recognizable for what they are.

FF: Happy New Year!

January 1, 2016

I didn’t post what books I’d been reading last week in order to wish you happy holidays, but now I’m back among the pages with a pretty varied collection at hand.

Ogapoge Between Verne and McDevitt

Ogapoge Between Verne and McDevitt

For those of you just discovering this feature, the Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazine articles.

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of description or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

Midnight Thief, by Livia Blackburne.  Street urchin thieves, corruption everywhere, mysterious orphan with magical heritage, knights, a splash of romance…

Thunderbird by Jack McDevitt.  This sequel to 1996’s Ancient Shores takes you beyond the gates.

In Progress:

X by Sue Grafton.  (Audiobook)  Haven’t had as much time to listen as I’d like!

The Orpheus Descent by Tom Harper.  Two plot lines, one contemporary, one from the POV of a fortyish Plato relieve this from being a typical conspiracy theory thriller.

The Hotel Cat by Esther Averill.  I loved her tales of Jenny, the little black cat with the red scarf, and her friends.  Jim found me this reprint of one of the books in the series for Christmas.


I’ve known Jim Zimmerman, who provided the illustrations for this reprint of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, for well over twenty years.  His black and white interior illustrations evoke old woodcuts and are perfect for this book!  (The cover is neat, too!)