Category Archives: Research

The historical, geological, scientific & gadgety interests that inform and propel my writing.

History Undusted: Plumbago vs. Graphite

Pencil, Carpenter'sMy husband and I had a discussion tonight (as one does) about which came first – Plumbago, or Graphite.  Being the curious types, I had to find out before he went to bed (me, being the night owl).  Here’s the low-down:

The English term Plumbago came into the language via Latin for a type of black lead ore.  In the 1500s, a large deposit of this ore was found in Cumbria, England; this particular vein was so compact and pure that it could be sawn into sticks, and it holds the record to this day of being the only large-scale solid ore deposit.  It wasn’t long before its value was recognised, and subsequently monopolised by the English Crown.  Long live the king and all that.  When the Crown had enough to last them awhile, they would flood the mines to prevent theft.  How clever is that?  Right.  The English folk have long been resourceful blokes, and they smuggled “lead” (carbon) out for pencil production and a bit of dosh on the side.  I wonder how they drained the flooded mine shafts?

It was used as a strategic secret by the British to make smoother cannon balls:  They would take the native ore, in its powdery form, and smooth it along the insides of their cannon ball moulds, allowing them to slip the molten hot ball out of the form intact.  It gave them a great advantage over conventional (enemy) artillery as it was more aerodynamic, and could inflict more damage more accurately.  During the Battle of Trafalgar, so many French bodies were stacked on their decks that, when seen by the British officers boarding the conquered ships, it shocked even war-hardened military men.  But I digress.

In 1789 a German mineralogist, Abraham Gottlob Werner, coined the term Graphit, from the Greek word graphein, meaning “write”, because it was at length used in pencils.  The first sticks of lead were wrapped in strips of leather to support the soft lead.  England held the monopoly on that until a way was found by the Germans (as early as the mid-1660s) to reconstitute powdered lead.  The German word made it into English around 1796.

So there you have it:  Plumbago wins by a long shot over (the bow of) Graphite.

If you’re interested in seeing how pencils are made, click here for a 10-minute YouTube video.

Originally posted 31

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Filed under Etymology, History, History Undusted, Military History, Research, Science & Technology

In Other Words – Make Every Word Count!

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.

Mark Twain - Very, Damn

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!

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History Undusted: The Art of Cookery made Plain and Easy

L0014984 H. Glasse's "Art of cookery": lady and her maidThe Art of Cookery made Plain and Easy was written in 1747 by Hannah Glasse (1708-1770) and played a dominant role in shaping the practices of domestic cooks in England and the American colonies for over one hundred years.  It is an excellent reference for historical writers, reenactors, and living museums.  Hannah wrote mostly for the “lower sort” as she called them, domestic servants who might not have had much exposure to various cooking techniques or ingredients before entering the service of a larger household.  She wrote it in a simple language, and can come across at times quite condescending; her writing style, spelling variations (including capitalisation which was much like German, with all nouns capitalised), and punctuation are in themselves a fascinating look at the standard of printing and editing, and what was most likely “acceptable English” of the times (I dread to think what future generations might assume is the “standard” of our own times, based on the slipshod average of what is unleashed online…!).  I’ve tried to leave Hannah’s work as-is, though sometimes the auto-correct sneaks by even the most diligent.

In my current manuscript, the third book in The Northing Trilogy, Asunder, my heroine goes from being of the upper class to marrying a lieutenant in the Royal Navy, disobliging her family and being cut off by the father.  Her mother sends her Hannah Glasse’s book, and she writes a journal entry regarding her use of it and trying to decipher just what is meant by instructions that, even with the attempt at instructing servants new to the kitchen, assumes a great deal of pre-knowledge (e.g. “first skin the meat and take off all the fat” or “chicken, which must be very nicely picked and clean“).

She had a very clear opinion as to what was right and wrong, how a thing was to be prepared and “there is no other way to do it right.”  Many of the “receipts” (recipes) are still known, such as Hasty Pudding or Yorkshire pudding, while others would be unthinkable – whole Woodcocks, Ortolans and snipes (with nothing removed), or how to prepare meat when it’s begun to stink.  They served every part of the animal, from entrails neatly presented to split skulls (with specific directions for how to lay the tongue most becomingly…).  There were a surprising variety of spices, herbs and ingredients used, and which she assumed every household would have on hand, such as China root, balsam of Tolu, and liquorice; she even included a few Indian curry recipes, reflecting the East Indian connections.   She minced no words on what she thought of extravagant (read wasteful) French cooking habits, and her disdain was evident in numerous passages.  Her recipes were by no means all original; many were common sense, but many were also shamelessly plagiarised from other published works (perhaps we should be grateful for that now, as otherwise they might have been lost to the mists of time!).  There are recipes of how to certainly avoid the plague, how a ship’s captain could have food prepared for long voyages, and recipes for medicinal purposes.

Not all homes had ovens, and in one recipe it is worded “send it to the oven… when it comes home” – this would imply that it was sent to the village bakery, and brought home to finish off once it had been sent away to be baked.  Because of that limitation, many recipes are for boiling; they seemed to boil the living daylights out of meat, vegetables, or anything else that they could put in a pot.

It is a fascinating historical document, reference work and recipe source (many, purely for the pleasure of grossing out your kids or guests) for those interested; but for those not interested, it would be a torture for me to post hideously long blogs on the topic.  The book can be found nowadays on Amazon in paperback, or online in PDF format. Below, I’ll share the original “pre-index” image, and her own personal note “To The Reader”, which in and of itself is entertaining, informative and historical.  She minces no words on her disdain for the French, so to my French readers, I ask that they please take it on the chin with a pinch of salt and a wink!

Hannah Glasse Book

Hannah Glasse’s “To the Reader.”

“I Believe I have attempted a branch of Cookery, which nobody has yet thought worth their while to write upon:  but as I have both seen, and found, by experienced, that the generality of servants are greatly wanting in that point, therefore I have taken upon me to instruct them in the best manner I am capable; and, I dare say, that every servant who can but read will be capable of making a tolerable good cook, and those who have the least notion of Cookery cannot miss of being very good ones.

“If I have not wrote in the high polite style, I hope I shall be forgiven; for my intention is to instruct the lower sort, and therefore must treat them in their own way.  For example:  when I bid them lard a fowl, if I should bid them lard with large lardoons, they would not know what I meant; but when I say they must lard with little pieces of bacon, they know what I mean.  So, in many other things in Cookery, the great cooks have such a high way of expressing themselves, that the poor girls are at a loss to know what they mean:  and in all Receipt Books yet printed, there are such an odd jumble of things as would quite spoil a good dish; and indeed some things so extravagant, that it would be almost a shame to make use of them, when a dish can be made full as good, or better, without them.  For example:  when you entertain ten or twelve people, you shall use for a cullis, a leg of veal and a ham, which, with the other ingredients, makes it very expensive, and all this only to mix with other sauce.  And again, the essence of ham for sauce to on dish; when I will prove it, for about three shillings I will make as rich and high a sauce as all that will be, when done.  For example:

“Take a large deep stew-pan, half a pound of bacon, fat and lean together, cut the fat and lay it over the bottom of the pan; then take a pound of veal, cut it into thin slices, beat it well with the back of a knife, lay it all over the bacon; then have six-penny worth of the coarse lean part of the beef cut thin and well beat, lay a layer of it all over, with some carrot, then the lean of the bacon cut thin and laid over that:  then cut two onions and strew over, a bundle of sweet-herbs, four or five blades of mace, six or seven cloves, a spoonful of whole pepper, black and white together, half a nutmeg beat, a pigeon beat all to pieces, lay that all over, half an ounce of truffles and morels, then the rest of your beef, a good crust of bread toasted very brown and dry on both sides:  you may add an old cock beat to pieces; cover it close, and let it stand over a slow fire two or three minutes, then pour on boiling water enough to fill the pan, cover it close, and let it stew till it is as rich as you would have it, and then strain off all that sauce.  Put all your ingredients together again, fill the pan with boiling water, put in a fresh onions, a blade of mace, and a piece of carrot; cover it close, and let it stew till it is as strong as you want it.  This will be full as good as the essence of ham for all sorts of fowls, or indeed most made-dishes, mixed with a glass of wine, and two or three spoonfuls of catchup.  When your first gravy is cool, skim off all the fat, and keep it for use. – This falls far short of the expense of a leg of veal and ham, and answers every purpose you want.

“If you go to market, the ingredients will not come to above half a crown, or for about eighteen-pence you may make as much good gravy as will serve twenty people.

“Take twelve-penny worth of coarse lean beef, which will be six or seven pounds, cut it all to pieces, flour it well, take a quarter of a pound of good butter, put it into a little pot or large deep stew-pan, and put in your beef:  keep stirring it, and when it begins to look a little brown, pour in a pint of boiling water; stir it all together, put in a large onion, a bundle of sweet herbs, two or three blades of made, five or six cloves, a spoonful of whole pepper, a crust of bread toasted, and a piece of carrot; then pour in four or five quarts of water, stir all together, cover close, and let it stew till it is as rich as you would have it; when enough, strain it off, mix it with two or three spoonfuls of catchup, and half a pint of white wine; then put all the ingredients together again, and put in two quarts of boiling water, cover it close, and let it boil till there is about a pint; strain it off well, add it to the first, and give it a boil together.  This will make a great deal of rich good gravy.

“You may leave out the wine, according to what use you want it for; so that really one might have a genteel entertainment, for the price the sauce of one dish comes to:  but if gentlemen will have French cooks, they must pay for French tricks.

“A Frenchman in his own country will dress a fine dinner of twenty dishes, and all genteel and pretty, for the expense he will put an English lord to for dressing one dish.  But then there is the little petty profit.  I have heard of a cook that used six pounds of butter to fry twelve eggs; when everybody knows (that understands cooking) that half a pound is full enough, or more than need be used; but then it would not be French.  So much is the blind folly of this age, that they would rather be imposed on by a French booby, than give encouragement to a good English cook!

“I doubt I shall not gain the esteem of those gentlemen; however, let that be as it will, it little concerns me; but should I be so happy as to gain the good opinion of my own sex, I desire no more; that will be a full recompence for all my trouble; and I only beg the favour of every lade to read my Book throughout before they censure me, and then I flatter myself I shall have their approbation.

“I shall not take upon me to meddle in the physical way farther than two receipts, which will be of use to the public in general: one is for the bit of a mad dog: and the other, if a man would be near where the plague is, he shall be in no danger; which, if made use of, would be found of very great service to those who go abroad.

“Nor shall I take upon me to direct a lady in the economy of her family, for every mistress does, or at least ought to know, what is most proper to be done there; therefore I shall not fill my Book with a deal of nonsense of that kind, which I am very well assured none will have regard to.

“I have indeed given some of my dishes French names to distinguish them, because they are known by those names:  and where there is a great variety of dishes and a large table to cover, so there must be a variety of names for them; and it matters not whether they be called by a French, Dutch or English name, so they are good, and done with as little expence as the dish will allow of.

“I shall say no more, only hope my Book will answer the ends I intend it for; which is to improve the servants, and save the ladies a great deal of trouble.”

Originally posted on History Undusted, 28 May 2013

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Wordless Wednesday no. 17: Fantasy Architectural Inspirations #1

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March 1, 2017 · 5:28 AM

Imagination vs Knowledge

Some say that imagination is more important than knowledge; to a certain extent, that may be true because imagination leads to new discoveries, inventions, and revelations.  But knowledge is often the basis for such discoveries; that which has been passed down by others who’ve researched, discovered, identified and recorded are the foundational stones upon which things are often built, whether in science, technology, or life in general.

beware-of-the-half-truth-wrong-halfIn this day and age, however, sometimes imagination overtakes knowledge (or simply ignores it).  An informed mind is a powerful tool; an uninformed mind can be a dangerous weapon.  This is true whether writing non-fiction, fiction, or passing on something on social media.  We should beware of the half truths – we may have gotten hold of the wrong half.

It’s now more important than ever to test the veracity of reports and even images; anyone can make an ass out of an angel, so to speak, with photoshop, et al.  How much misinformation is spread by simple carelessness or wilful misdirection (that includes, unfortunately, mainstream news media)?  Or by assuming that since something is from a trusted friend it must be true?  How often have you gotten upset by an article you’ve seen and commented on it, or passed it on, allowing it to form an opinion in your subconscious at the very least, and in your active thoughts at worst, only to find out later that it was a false report, a hoax, or sloppy journalism?

abraham-lincoln-internet-quote

As you probably know, I love to learn; I have a steel trap of a mind for little bits of trivia, like the fact that certain microbes concentrate and disperse (read “poop”) gold, or that all living creatures, including you and I, emit visible light (probably a byproduct of biochemical reactions).  As a writer of fiction that comes in handy; I can extrapolate knowledge and use it as a plot detail or a character quirk; but when I’m writing a blog, e.g. about a historical detail, I want to make sure I get it right.  A case in point was an article I wrote in 2014 about post-mortem photography in the Victorian period; it was by far the most popular post to date on that blog and continues to generate interest.  In particular, two points from the article were addressed, researched, and edited/corrected either in the article itself or in the comments and discussion that ensued.  Mistakes happen, but when I catch them, I will do my best to correct them!

For writers, it is important to cross-reference anything you find online, especially if you’re basing something significant on it such as character development, location, or plot.  Assumptions can also get you into trouble; I know that Geneva is part of Switzerland, but in writing 18th-century fiction, I need to be aware of the fact that it was merely an ally of the Swiss Confederacy from the 16th century, but only became part of Switzerland in 1814.  Any reference I have to it in my trilogy needs to reflect that fact.

I recently read a collection of short stories on Kindle, and on nearly every single Kindle page there were mistakes (that adds up to a lot of mistakes per manuscript page!):  Missing words that the authors assumed were there, typos, commas 2 or 3 words off-position, stray quotation marks, and countless words they assumed were the correct ones but obviously were not (e.g. catwalk instead of rampart for a castle).  This is where imagination overtook the writer, and knowledge gave way to ignorance…  I have understanding for one or two such errors in a manuscript of that length, but none whatsoever for several per page; that simply smacks of laziness and poor-to-no editing, and it boils down to an unintentional slap in the face to any reader who’s taken the time to read their story.

Knowledge without imagination is like a rusted hinge; imagination is the oil that makes the knowledge come to life, and the writer is the door handle that opens the door to new worlds, new ideas, new discoveries, and inventions. It sounds noble, doesn’t it?  But did you realize that many of the electronic gadgets we take for granted today were at one time birthed in the imaginations of men like Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek?  It inspired countless children who went on to become astronauts, scientists, and engineers, who made those science-fiction inventions become reality and discovered distant worlds (now known as exoplanets).  I’m waiting with bated breath for the transporter to replace airline security queues…

Those hinges are necessary, as is the oil, so that the door handle can do its job and get out of the way, allowing the world beyond to unfold.

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History Undusted: The History of Valentine’s Day

vintage-valentine-cardWith Valentine’s Day just around the corner, I thought I’d just say a bit about the actual history of the celebration of love.  Throughout history, there have been variations of celebrations of love, but they didn’t always take on the innocuous form that modern-day marketing departments have dreamed up.  Here in Switzerland, 14 February is still fairly similar to 14 March – in other words, just another day in the calendar.  But celebrating love, in whatever form it takes, from loving your spouse or partner to loving your parents, your friends, pets or kids, is never a bad idea.  So let’s take a look at how bygone ages viewed it:

The innocently playful Valentine card started off more like a lottery ticket:  In ancient Rome, during the celebration of Lupercalia, the names of willing young ladies were put into a box and mixed up; young, available men could draw out a card at random, and that young woman or girl was thus won to remain his companion for the length of the celebration which lasted the modern date equivalent of 13-15 February, and was accompanied by animal sacrifices (a goat and dog).  Nothing said romance to the Romans like blood and guts and the smell of burning fur, apparently.

After a few centuries, the established Church realized that though you can lead a horse to water you can’t make it drink; so instead of forbidding the celebrations, they adapted them to be less offensive:  Their version was also a bit less entertaining; they drew names from the lottery as before but this time instead of young women, the name of a saint was drawn to whom prayers would be offered.  It was at this stage that Saint Valentine came to be associated with the day, as he had a reputation for being warm-hearted.  So the lottery for girls continued, perhaps more or less under the table, while ostensibly under the patronage of a saint.  By 1725 it had evolved into a game of drawing lots from two vessels, one each for men and women; their lot drawn was then their “Valentine”.  Not so sure how that worked – there must have been a prodigious amount of love triangles as the woman drew one name, the man drew another, and so on…

Another evolution in the celebration was as follows:  The first man seen by a woman that morning (outside her own household) became her willy-nilly Valentine, and neither could look for an alternative.  The famous Pepys left his home early on the morning of 14 February 1661 to be assured of getting the “right” Valentine, swapping a friend’s wife for his own for the day in a good-natured jest with the four of them.  It was customary at that time to give a handsome present to the Valentine’s woman, so it was worth getting a good one.  Mrs. Pepys got half a dozen pairs of gloves and a pair of silk stockings and garters out of that swap, so I can imagine that her husband did no less for his friend’s wife!

Letters to Valentines began as early as 1479, with references found in the Paston Letters, and continued for over 300 years.  The oldest Valentine’s cards were, naturally, all hand-made; the oldest one in possession, dated 1750, was in the Hull Museum as of the late 1940s.  Many such Valentine’s cards and letters were not kept as they were not worth the keeping to those who received them.  As the custom progressed, however, a clever marketing scheme was bound to spring up.  In the 19th century the commercial Valentine began life in the form of stationery (envelopes were unknown until after the 1840s), the stationery itself folded and serving as the envelope.  Still, such a ready-made Valentine was seen as a proof of failure, as people prided themselves in poems and compositions… they were labours of love, not a quickly-posted printed monstrosity.  So, new strategy:  Some Valentines were produced half-finished to allow the personal touch to be added in, and they were provided with a small parcel of add-ons (lace, hearts, trimmings, etc.) to that end.  In the end, it was hard for the individual to compete with a designer employing skilful artists, and the homemade Valentine vanished.

By 1880 the British post had to employ an additional 300-400 workers on 13 February to deal with the 1.5 million Valentines. (This statistic comes from the Post Office Magazine from February 1937.)  The manufactured cards continued to become more elaborate, embossed, lithographed, laced with studs, birds, baskets, ribbons and Cupids with colourful petals, trellis-work, and even perfume.  But as with all mass-produced items, art decays when it becomes profitable; mass-production caused a huge drop in popularity.  In the mid-1930s a new medium was explored, the Valentine telegram, which continued up until WW2.

My earliest memory of Valentine’s Day was in grade school; we each constructed and decorated a “letter box” and taped it to our school lockers; every day was like Christmas for that week, wondering who we’d gotten anonymous cards from!  Another Valentine memory is from college when I dated someone who was studying Chinese to become a missionary; on that February morning I went to my car to go to work and found a long-stemmed rose on the windshield with a card… in Chinese.  I still have the card somewhere, as a bookmark, and it still makes me smile.  We both went on with our lives in different directions, but I still consider him a friend.

So the next time you choose a Valentine’s card, ponder a moment.  Perhaps the sentiment would be better represented by a good, old-fashioned handmade card instead… that personal touch that will still speak volumes in years to come.

What are some of your own Valentine’s memories?

(For more fascinating histories of holidays and celebrations, check out The English Festivals, by Laurence Whistler.)

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Buying Credit

No, the title is not referring to money or cash cards, but writing.  Stick with me.  If you’ve made yourself at home here and nosed through my cupboards, you’ll know that I do a LOT of research.  I love it.  It adds spice to my character’s meals, salty spray that blackens the redcoats of marines aboard a royal navy ship, tells me that heated arsenic smells like garlic, and makes the ship creak so loudly you’ll swear you’re going down to Davy Jones’ locker.  But there are times when, as an author, I’m required to blur the lines between fact and fiction.

There are certain things that people erroneously assume (such as Viking helmets) that I may need to adapt in order not to lose a reader’s trust (though trust me, I will never add horns!):  The sentence structures of bygone days were far more complex, with vestiges of Germanic linguistic influences – for my current manuscript (set in 18th century England and mostly aboard a Royal Navy ship of the line) I need to modernize the syntax without losing the High English flavour, and without compromising on the linguistic purity of my story’s time-setting; modern sensibilities (in social ladders, issues such as slavery, war, etc.); laxer standards (in, say, relationships or politics or social ranks), and so on.  A modern reader will most likely not appreciate the complex social mores of a time when men and women were never alone in a room – even when the man wanted to propose to the woman, and the parents wanted it to take place; and so, such things need to be adapted at times, to a certain extent, to reach a modern audience without alienating the audience that revels in bygone literature.

If I, as an author, want my reader (who is perhaps a stickler for all things historical) to give me the permission to bend a few social rules of the 18th century, I must first buy credit with them – prove to them that I’ve done my homework – so that they won’t get ripped out of the story in disbelief when I contrive to leave a man and a woman alone in the same room without a chaperone.  In my current manuscript, the husband and wife come from opposite ends of the social ladder, and the husband becomes a captain in the royal navy at the tender age of 20 or 21.  Both of these situations have many historical precedents; I know that from countless hours of research.  But most people who read historical novels might think, “But Viking helmets always have horns” – or something to that effect.  If written well, these disparities in understanding can be smoothed over, so that when I really DO break historical moulds, I am allowed to do so without offending the reader “in the know”.

1761-joshua-reynolds-lady-elizabeth-keppel

1761, Lady Elizabeth Keppel, by Sir Joshua Reynolds

This portrait illustrates an important point:  Many people, when thinking of the British rule of India, perceive it through postmodern lenses; we see it from the hindsight of Gandhi and the independence of the country from the imperialistic rule of British paramountcy.  But the other aspects were the children and wives of British soldiers, diplomats, and tradesmen, and the loneliness faced, the friendships struck with Indian men and women… these are important aspects to weave into a story, too, and thus require research.  Notice the pearls adorning the Indian woman below?  The researcher in me wants to know her story far more than the story of Lady Keppel (who died of a broken heart at the age of 29, just months after her husband had died of injuries from a riding accident).  Some readers may get jolted out of the world you create by the pearls, though it is historically accurate – so you’d still need to buy credit by setting up that aspect well.

These same credit-buying rules apply to any genre, even science fiction:  If you create a world set on another planet, that world will have laws – physics laws, indigenous social mores, etc. – and you as a writer must know what they are, and if or how they can be broken if need be.  You can’t claim that all liquid on the planet is frozen, and then have your character drinking from a fountain or stream, unless you explain how that’s possible.  If you do, you’ve taxed your believability credits and pulled the reader out of the world they’ve agreed to follow you into.  The manuscript that I’ll work on next (after the current one is published!) is science fiction; the air of the planet is toxic to humans, so I need to create a way for facial expressions, dialogue, etc. to come through even when the characters are outside in their suits.  I have done a lot of preliminary research into geology (that told me about heated arsenic, among other things); I also need to explain how a planet with multiple suns can have a stable enough orbit not to be drawn into one of the stars and burn up – i.e. I need to follow known physics laws, or explain how they are suspended for my planet.  I think you get the idea!

So if, as a writer, you want readers to believe what you write about a fictional character set in British India, you first need to buy credit with your readers by doing your historical homework and sculpting the landscape and characters in the rich tapestry they deserve.  If you are writing science fiction, establish your world and stick to your rules so that, if you need to bend them for a plot development, the readers will be willing to follow you on the adventure.  Whatever you do, keep writing!

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History Undusted: Naval Slang

In our everyday language, we often use sayings without really knowing how they originated.  Sayings such as “to swing a cat” or “down the hatch” or “break the ice”.  These three have something in common:  They all began life as naval slang.

cat-o_-nine-tails__psf_The first, “to swing a cat,” has a rather gruesome beginning:  It refers to the cat-o’-nine-tails, a whip made up of nine knotted cords roughly 75 cm long that was designed by the British Royal Navy to inflict severe pain and lacerate the skin.  It was used in flogging for anything from drunkenness to mutinous talk to stealing.  It was known as a “cat,” and obviously they needed room to swing it, to get the full effect.  Today it merely refers to the size of a room or space as being “too small to swing a cat”.  Another nautical idiom with cat was “to cat the anchor”:  The cat referred to here was a large wooden beam on either side of the bow of a sailing ship which was used to support the weight of the anchor as it was raised or lowered; since there was usually the head of a lion or large cat carved at the head of the beam, it was called a cathead.

“Down the hatch” is more straightforward:  The hatch was the covering of the hatchway on a ship, an opening in the deck which allowed vertical access into the hold for loading cargo.  It means the act of drinking in particular, the mouth being the “hatch”.

“To break the ice” means to remove the invisible social barriers between strangers to ease conversation and social contact.  It comes from the specialized ships called “ice breakers,” which were designed to plough through icy waters, making the passage of other vessels possible.  Without such a ship, arctic expeditions could find themselves frozen in, land-locked by shifting ice sheets.

For many more sayings relating to naval history, check out “Not Enough Room to Swing a Cat” – Naval Slang and its Everyday Usage by Martin Robson.

Originally posted 28 on History Undusted.

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A Little Light Reading… Not

I will admit that I have quite odd tastes in reading, especially for a woman; I tend toward history, nautical, and obscure or long-forgotten books.  In writing my current manuscript, which is Asunder, the third book in the Northing Trilogy, I’ve read more than a fair share of military history books, specifically covering the 18th century of the Royal Navy.  Once, on a research trip to London, I searched out a bookstore that specializes in military and transport books, even reputed to have remainders; I don’t think they’d seen a woman in the shop in years (who’d entered intentionally) by the looks I got; one of the men even said, “The beauty shop’s two doors down, love.”  When I asked if they had the out-of-print autobiography by William Spavens, a unique lower deck view of the 18th century navy, they froze as if they hadn’t heard me correctly.  The question must have been laced with catnip, because after that I had the entire shop of men eating out of my hand, and I spent nearly two hours in there being helped to the finest pick of naval history books (including the autobiography I was after!).  Sadly, the last time I was there the shop was gone, but I’ve since found the largest used book shop in London, Skoob, which is highly dangerous for a bibliophile with a private library…!

A few of the books I’ve read in the course of research for Asunder are fairly gory, like Medicine Under Sail (I’d bet my bottom dollar that the screen writers for “Master and Commander“, with Russell Crowe, read that book as they wrote the script) and “Poxed & Scurvied” – the story of sickness and health at sea, while others have been like reading a thriller, such as “The Seven Years War” by Rupert Furneaux  or “A Sailor of King George” by Captain Frederick Hoffman.

I devour history books like other people devour pulp fiction; but especially during the first draft of the book, I had to continually keep in mind that I was writing historical fiction, not a history book; the details that I included had to serve the plot and character development, and not visa versa.  Only a fraction of what I learned has gone into the book; but those rich details give salt to the waves, creaks to the ship, and whip to the rope (I’ve also spent hours aboard the Cutty Sark “filling in the blanks” of a docked ship, so to speak, but that’s another story).  I could have peppered the dialogue with so much naval slang you wouldn’t have been able to swing a cat (naval slang, by the way), but if readers were to get ripped out of the story trying to figure things out, then I would have missed the mark.

So, the next time you sit down for a little light reading, you might want to consider one of the books linked above; then again, if you don’t want gory dreams, rather go with “The Price of Freedom“, or “Redemption“, or “The Cardinal, Part One or Part Two“…  and enjoy!

third-rate-ship-of-the-line-diagram

One of my library posters

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History Undusted: Decisions, Decisions

In May 2013, I began blogging here on WordPress; at the time, I had several topics of interest that I wanted to pursue, and to that end I began several blogs.  As time has marched on sometimes other priorities took over, or focus changed, and now I have three active blogs.  This eponymous blog is my home-base, but one of my favourite blogs to write besides this one is History Undusted.  I love finding the dusty bits of history and “undusting” them for the unsuspecting public.  But sadly, it has never really seemed to find notice by WordPress, and many of the posts have gone unseen.

Because history and the research thereof is a big part of my writing process, whether it be Viking history, archaeology, Scottish history, 18th century England, science, technology, advertisement, historical characters, or any of a dozen other topics, I have decided to combine the two blogs into this one.  If history isn’t your thing, don’t worry – I will still enjoy posting articles regularly about the writing process and the nuts and bolts involved!  I will begin “importing” (and, if necessary, augmenting) those blogs gradually, until they’re all safely here.

So without further ado, here is the first offering:

Decisions, Decisions

gieves-dress-wheelHave you ever heard of a butler (or male servant, in general) referred to as “Gieves” or “Jeeves”?  This might just be where it all started:  The Gieves Gentlemen’s Tailor Company was founded in 1771, and became a limited company in 1785; their dress wheel aided naval officers in choosing what to wear at any particular occasion, for any part of the world they might have found themselves in at the time.  Dressing, even for men, was an extremely complex social signal in bygone eras.  By 1935 there were twelve styles of dress, including tropical options.  By turning the wheel, an officer could see just what to wear on any occasion.  A handy little marketing device, it gained Gieves loyal royal naval customers, and the company has thrived ever since, with loyal customers including members of the British royal family today. For an interesting history of the company, click here.

Sir P.G. Wodehouse, an English author and one of the most widely-read humorists of the 20th century, named the comical fictional character of his shrewd valet “Jeeves”; the name was taken from Percy Jeeves, who was a cricketer killed during the First World War. Both the wheel and the fictional character served to cement the name in the collective conscience of the western world as a reliable servant.

Originally posted 27 May 2013 on History Undusted

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