Category Archives: Nuts & Bolts
Recently I came across Pixar’s rule #19, quoted in James Scott Bell’s book, “How to Write Short Stories (and use them to further your writing career)”. It’s an excellent book, and one of a few of his I’ve got in my Kindle collection. But this rule reminded me of the whole list, full of good advice for storytellers whether their format is film or novel (from flash fiction to tome). Most writing advice boils down to things like focus, self-discipline, detail work, and honing one’s craft to the best it can be – and that is an on-going process, a habit, an addiction. It needs to be a passion. Honing our craft means covering all the bases – grammar, syntax, plot, character, vocabulary, pacing, theme-building, and so, so, much more! If you’ve got a weakness in your writing skills, the good news is that you can always improve it! Make it a strength! So be inspired, and keep writing!
In researching for my novel, “The Cardinal“, I did a lot of research into the Viking Age of Scotland, Norway, and in modern-day Britain. The following is a snippet of the notes and thoughts I percolated over while studying into this amazing time in world history. Some of the speculations, such as the motivations behind the Lindisfarne attack, are my own, based on studies and extrapolation.
I think it’s impossible to do justice to any information about the Vikings; their existence, culture, language, mentality, and the effect of their actions have had repercussions that echo down through the ages. They gave names to countless cities throughout the world, and even entire regions: The Norse kingdom of Dublin (Old Norse for “Black Pool”) was a major centre of the Norse slave trade; Limerick, Wexford and Wicklow were other major ports of trade; Russia gets its name from them, and the list goes on and on. Had they not been so successful in the slave trade and conquest, entire regions of the earth would be populated differently, place names would be vastly different, and English would be a far poorer language than it is today.
“A.D. 793. This year came dreadful fore-warnings over the land of the Northumbrians, terrifying the people most woefully: these were immense sheets of light rushing through the air, and whirlwinds, and fiery dragons flying across the firmament. These tremendous tokens were soon followed by a great famine: and not long after, on the sixth day before the ides of January in the same year, the harrowing inroads of heathen men made lamentable havoc in the church of God in Holy-island, by rapine and slaughter.” (The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, pg. 37)
This reference from The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, one of the most famous history books available in English, is a reference to what would become known as the beginning of the Viking Age, the attack on the Holy Isle of Lindisfarne. Firstly, I’d like to clarify a few points: “Viking” is a term that first came into being, in its present spelling, in 1840; it entered English through the Old Norse term “vikingr” in 1807. The Old Norse term meant “freebooter, pirate, sea-rover, or viking”, and the term “viking” meant “piracy, freebooting voyage.” The armies of what we would call Vikings were referred to by their contemporaries as Danes, and those who settled were known by the area they settled in, or visa-versa. Those who settled in the northeastern regions of Europe were called Rus by their Arabian and Constantinopolitan trading partners, perhaps related to the Indo-European root for “red”, referring to their hair colour, or – more likely – related to the Old Norse word of Roþrslandi, “the land of rowing,” in turn related to Old Norse roðr “steering oar,” from which we get such words as “rudder” and “row”.
Oh, and not a single Norse battle helmet with horns has ever been found.
I’d like to focus on a key point of the Lindisfarne episode, if one could refer so glibly to the slaughter of innocent monks and the beginning of the reign of terror that held the civilized world in constant fear for over two centuries: Yes, the Vikings were violent; their religion of violent gods and bloody sacrifices and rituals encouraged and cultivated it to a fine art. Yes, the Vikings were tradesmen, but they were also skilled pirates and raiders, that skill honed along their own home coasts for generations prior to their debut on the rest of the unsuspecting world. Yes, it was known that monasteries held items sacred to the Christian faith, that just happened to be exquisitely wrought works of art made of gold and jewels.
Gold was one enticement; but their primary trading good was human flesh; slaves. It was by far the most lucrative item, and readily had along any coast they chose; if too many died in the voyage they could always just get more before they docked at Constantinople, Dublin, or any other major trading port. So why did they slaughter the monks so mercilessly at Lindisfarne, when they would have gained more by taking them captive and either selling them as slaves or selling them for ransom? The answer might actually be found in Rome.
Charlemagne (ruled 768-814 AD) took up his father’s reigns and papal policies in 768 AD. From about 772 AD onwards, his primary occupation became the conversion to Christianity of the pagan Saxons along his northeastern frontier. It is very important to make a distinction between the modern expressions of the Christian faith and the institution of power mongers of past centuries; Christianity then had extremely little to do with the teachings of Christ and far more to do with political and military power, coercion, and acquisition of wealth through those powers; it was a political means to their own ends with the blessing of the most powerful politician in the history of the civilized world, the Pope. Without his blessing and benediction, a king had not only very little power, but was exposed to attack from anyone who had “holy permission” to exterminate heathens; joining the ranks of the Christian church took on the all-important definition of survival, and protection from the others in those ranks being free to attack you at their leisure.
In the year 772 AD, Charlemagne’s forces clashed with the Saxons and destroyed Irmensul, the Saxon’s most holy shrine and likely their version of the Yggdrasil, the Tree of the World, of Scandinavian mythology. In the Royal Frankish Annals of 775 AD, it was recorded that the king (Charlemagne) was so determined in his quest that he decided to persist until they were either defeated and forced to accept the papal authority (in the guise of “Christian faith”), or be entirely exterminated [Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories, trans. Bernhard Walter Scholz with Barbara Rogers (Michigan 1972: 51)]. Charlemagne himself conducted a few mass “baptisms” to underscore the close identification of his military power with the Christian church.
“In 782 the Saxons rebelled again and defeated the Franks in the Süntel hills. Charlemagne’s response was the infamous massacre of Verden on the banks of the river Aller, just south of the neck of the Jutland peninsula. As many as 4,500 unarmed Saxon captives were forcibly baptised into the Church and then executed. Even this failed to end Saxon resistance and had to be followed up by a programme of transportations in 794 in which about 7,000 of them were forcibly resettled. Two further campaigns of forcible resettlement followed, in 797 and in 798…. Heathens were defined as less than fully human so that, under contemporary Frankish canon law, no penance was payable for the killing of one” [Ferguson, Robert (2009-11-05). The Hammer and the Cross: A New History of the Vikings (Kindle Locations 1048-1051). Penguin UK. Kindle Edition.]
The defining of a heathen as less than human was actually not a unique idea; Scandinavians were familiar with that notion from their own cultures, which defined slaves as less than human and therefore tradable goods; and if a freeman announced his intention of killing someone (anyone) it was not considered murder as the victim was given “fair” warning.
The more I learn about Charlemagne’s brutal policies toward what he considered sub-human pagans, the more I understand the reaction of retaliation toward the symbols of that so-called Christian faith, the monasteries and its inhabitants. They slaughtered, trampled, polluted, dug up altars, stole treasures, killed some, enslaved some, drove out others naked while heaping insults on them, and others they drowned in the sea. The latter was perhaps a tit-for-tat for those at Verden who were forcibly baptised and then killed.
Lindisfarne was merely the first major attack in Britain that was highly publicized (as chroniclers of history were usually monks, and those such as Alcuin knew the inhabitants of Lindisfarne personally), in what would become a 250-year reign of terror, violence, slavery, raping, pillaging, plundering and theft either by force or by Danegeld. But as in all good histories, it’s important to remember that hurt people hurt people; the perpetrator was at one time a victim. One might say that what goes around comes around. It’s no excuse or downplay of what happened there, which literally changed the course of the civilised world, but it perhaps gives a wider perspective on the Vikings of the times rather than just the vicious raiders portrayed in so many documentaries. And it is important to remember that Vikings did not equal Norsemen; the majority of Scandinavians were farmers and fishermen, living as peacefully as their times would allow, and even themselves victims to the occasional Viking raid.
Originally posted on History Undusted on 14 July 2013
Image Credit: Origin Unknown, Pinterest
Recently I was chatting with a few friends, and the topic of finding information came up; I was surprised that it hadn’t even occurred to them that they could find such information online. Time and again, I meet such people. It is a modern phenomenon that we have the world’s knowledge at our fingertips; Google has become so ubiquitous with searches that it’s made it into dictionaries as a verb, and yet it seems that some people have still not realised its potential.
Granted, there is a lot of static out there: Misinformation (whether intentional or unintentional), nonsense, and useless clutter (someone’s grandkid’s cousin’s uncle’s birthday party, or videos that need massive editing before they’re much use but they’re online nonetheless). But if you know how to search, there’s a world of information out there to be had; you need to use discernment, and – especially if using the information as a basis for an article, or in writing a novel – you need to get cross-references and confirmation. But I’ve found that the people I’ve talked to on this topic can’t seem to get past the static and therefore seem to have difficulty in viewing cyberspace as a serious information source.
The downside of so much ready knowledge with easy access is that people no longer need to memorise or learn information themselves – they can just grab their phone and look it up. The upside of it is that, if people make proper use of it, they can learn so much more than previous generations ever even had access to. The photo below, gone viral, is of a school class sitting in front of Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch”; while it appears that they are bored and inattentive to what is around them, they’re actually using the museum’s app to learn more about the photo and the painter as part of a school assignment. Notice that they’re interacting with each other, and even helping each other. Hopefully part of the assignment was also to study the painting with their eyes.
I do a LOT of research online; for some of my books, I’ve done odd searches which I’m certain mess with the algorithms of Google & co. I’ve searched for the average size of a human corpse and the distinctions between a coffin, casket and cist (I started getting ads for funeral services after that); how to throw a kris dagger vs. a regular dagger; tide tables; sunrises, sunsets and moon phases in the 9th, 18th and 21st centuries; native flowers to Britain in the Georgian period; medicine at sea; the effects of various soil compositions on a corpse and artefacts, postmortem forensics, and dozens of other bizarre topics. In my free time, I do a wide variety of crafts and cooking, and so my Pinterest pins multiply like rabbits in the dark! Just click on my gravatar link to have a peek through my cupboards there.
If you put your mind to learning how to do anything, you can find instructions for it somewhere online. A few weeks ago, I wanted to reupholster our office chairs (they are the kind that has a hard plastic frame at the back and underside of the seat). I found a Youtube video that showed how to take them apart, and within an hour I had the first chair dismantled, reupholstered and reconstructed. As Amelia Earhart said, “The most difficult thing is the decision to act; the rest is mere tenacity.” I find that, in talking with friends, they often don’t know how to begin searching, and I think that’s the key: They don’t try because they don’t know how to start, and so they can’t learn how to do it – learning by trial and error. Failure is merely success in progress, but the point is that progress requires action… movement.
For writers, cyberspace is worth its weight in gold; no library could hold the amount of information available to us at our fingertips; no university could teach the wide range of topics available online; no video library could contain the staggering amount of documentaries, DIY instruction videos, and step-by-step how-tos.
What was the most recent thing you searched for online? Was your search successful? How much time did it take you to find what you were looking for? Please describe it briefly in a comment below!
The ampersand (&) may seem like a modern invention for lazy spellers, or a typesetter’s solution to limited space, or an English teacher’s pet peeve on exams; but it can actually be traced back to the 1st century Romans. In English, “&” is pronounced “and” rather than its original Latin word “et” (meaning “and”). Hannah Glasse’s writings show us that “etc.” was, in her time, written as “&c.” which may look strange to our modern sensibilities, but makes perfect sense when you know the origin of the ampersand.
There are many examples of ligature (characters consisting of two or more symbols combined into one) in use today; everyday symbols we use likely have quite a history. Have you ever wondered about @, #, ©, ¶, or % ? Or even “?” ? And no, I’m not cussing.
Many currency symbols are a combination, abbreviation or contraction of words or letters: The British pound symbol £ derives from the Roman word “Librae;” Libra was the basic Roman unit for weight, derived from the Latin word for “scales,” or “balance.” “L” was the abbreviation (see, we aren’t the first generation of lazy spellers; but then again, you would be too, if you had to chisel it into stone, or cure hides for scrolls). The Pound Sterling has quite a pedigree and is worth a read over at Wikipedia.
Believe it or not, the “at” symbol, @, was first used in a religious text: The Bulgarian translation of the Greek Manasses Chronicle (c. 1345) used it as an abbreviation for “Amen”. There are several theories as to why it was used in this way; perhaps it was in an effort to save space and ink and hard-won writing surfaces. In English, the symbol was originally an accounting and invoice abbreviation for “at a rate of”. In fact, it has long been used in financial or commercial contexts in several languages. The use in email addresses began in 1971, and we all know how it’s used in web page addresses, and increasingly in use in text messages; it is probably the most common ligature of all.
Our modern language has added Emoticons to the list of ligature symbols; many computers automatically convert certain combinations of symbols into a different one altogether; for example: :+-+) becomes , <+3 becomes ♥; for more, take a gander at the image to the right.
Our language is full of history; those little symbols, punctuation marks that we take for granted, that necessary “@” for connecting to the world… what would we do without them? And a hundred years from now, teenagers will be surprised how old is; they might even wonder what a physical computer keyboard with individual keys looked like.
Originally posted 2 July 2013 on History Undusted
I’ve been editing, tweaking, editing, and tweaking this week; not to mention editing. Over the years I’ve used a wide variety of tools, such as Scrivener, but have found that, for me, the best combination is MS Word and my brain.
One of the tools I’ve also been using recently is a new one for me: The Grammarly app in Word. I’m of a mixed opinion about it. Do any of you use this app with your manuscript? If so, what is your experience/impression?
So far, the app is batting less than 1 out of 10; in other words, of 10 “critical errors” that it points out, only 1 of them is legitimate. I’d say the average is more like 1 out of 15 or 18. There is also a version of this app, which requires a monthly or yearly subscription, that will expand its range of editing suggestions; but before I go that route I want to know that the app actually works in the free version. So far, it’s more static than editing aid.
Now to be fair, my manuscript is not the average; it’s got words like en queue (the hairstyle of men in the 18th century), and odd terminology to do with nautical actions or environments. But some of the errors that it points out, such as those to do with commas, are actually correct (e.g. pointing out the second comma of a parenthetical phrase as out of place). Most of the time the suggestions that it makes are just downright wrong in the context; it proves that language is a fluid concept, and nearly impossible to intelligently simulate in a computer program. It also means that we are far better off becoming fluent in grammar rather than relying on ANY program to correct our writing!
Having said that, I still appreciate it because it forces me to think through a decision, whether that be sentence structure, punctuation, or phrasing. Sometimes it sends me in search of confirmation for a grammatical assumption I’ve made; rarely am I surprised by what I find, but it nevertheless helps to solidify the right way of writing something in my mind. For the most part, I have the app turned off (a great function – the only reason I still use it!), just running it through sections at a time as my other editing nears an end.
Are there any programs or apps that you use for editing? If so, what is your experience? Please share in the comments below!
I’ve been out of WordPress-land for the past week or so; I’ve been focused on editing and didn’t want to blog until I had something worth writing about. I thought I’d tell you a bit about what I’ve been working on & thinking about:
One golden rule in writing is to make every word count; along that yellow brick road are all kinds of signposts and potholes. Signposts are things like “make verbs do the actions”, while potholes are “watch out for unnecessary words” – either for the sake of padding word count (e.g. for a short story or report that needs to reach a certain word count), or words that slip in needlessly. Examples of unnecessary words are -ly adverbs (if we use the best verb, the adverb will be superfluous), strings of adjectives, really, very, and there is/are/were/was. Recently I’ve been scanning my current manuscript for the kinds of words that slip in easily while writing in a flow; I have a list of things that I watch out for personally, and one item is “there”. While I try to catch them as I write, sometimes I will intentionally use them as a “place-marker” – knowing that I’ll come searching for them later, find it, and re-write the sentence or scene with a fresher eye than I had at the time I originally wrote it. That’s just me – I know myself, that I won’t leave things like that long. If you’re not sure you’ll catch those sentences you want to improve on later, then mark them with a different coloured text, or an e-post-it, or something that will jump out at you.
Here are a few examples of sentences (from my current manuscript) with “there” before and after editing:
…there was a crisp off-shore wind… —> …a crisp off-shore wind blew…
…there was no recollection in his eyes… —> …no recollection flickered in his eyes…
…there was a twinkle of amusement in his eyes… —> …amusement twinkled in his eyes…
…there was no sign of the HMS Norwich… —> …the HMS Norwich was nowhere to be seen…
…there would be dire consequences… —> …dire consequences would follow…
…there was a smirk on the captain’s face… —> …a smirk spread across the captain’s face…
Tightening up the wording makes the sentence less clunky and more precise. Making every word count is not about reducing word count, although that will be a natural consequence sometimes; at other times, by changing the sentence to mean more precisely what you want to convey, it may result in the word count actually increasing. Just make sure that the words you use carry their weight. Waffling, rambling & repetition will not win us any brownie points; I could easily go into detail about the ropes of a ship of sail, but it would probably bore most readers to death! Sometimes “less is more”; it’s enough to say “ropes”. If I describe a surgeon’s table and list the instruments he’s about to use, it may be TMI (“too much information”) if using the word “instruments” is enough; if I want something more specific, then I could name a tool at a particular moment in the scene. Though I like the (audio) book “The Host”, by Stephenie Meyer, my one gripe with it is what I call the “roll call” scenes – where the characters present are listed, as if in a roll call. It’s TMI – it would be enough to say something like, “those I counted as allies were with me”.
Other times, a list of words may become a linguistic collage, painting a picture in the reader’s mind of a character, or a place, or a mood. A classic example of this is Lewis Caroll’s Jabberwocky; most of the words are nonsensical, non-existent words, but they nevertheless paint a clear image in the reader’s mind.
It’s why writing is never an exact science, and why, as a writer, I can always learn something, always hone my skills. If I ever become satisfied with my own level of writing, to me that’s a warning sign that I’m missing a significant moment of improvement. That should never stop someone from publishing – from letting their baby grow up and go out into the world to make other friends – but in the writing and editing process, be prepared to let go of pet scenes, or even some characters, in favour of an improved manuscript. Making every word count requires that we learn to recognise what counts, and what doesn’t. So keep writing, and keep honing your skills!