Tag Archives: Style

A Blast from the Past: 1906

Living in the Cyber Age, it’s easy to forget that personal computers only came into existence for the mass market in 1981 (and even then, didn’t become common household items until the early 1990s), with the launch of the IBM Personal Computer (they coined that term, and the shortened “PC”).  We got our first personal computer in 1993, and it had the astounding RAM of 256 MB!

As far as telephones went, I grew up with several:  My grandparents’ farm had a box phone on the wall, with the separate ear piece; then they modernized to a heavy black beast of a rotary phone – the kind you could really slam down if the need arose; in fact, you had to be careful how you set it down when you weren’t upset, because it was so heavy that it might sound like a slam in the receiver!  My family had wireless land-line phones, but the signal was poor if you moved much farther away than a long cable would have allowed.   Remember the impatience of dialling a number on the rotary dial, especially if it contained nines or zeros?  And remember that curly cable that got tangled on itself from being over-stretched?  Cell phones didn’t really come into their own until the late 1990s as a mass-market item; kids today would find that hard to imagine, as they seem to think they’ll fall off the edge of the known universe and die if they leave the house without their cells.

Before Spotify, iTunes or MP3s, and even before CDs were common, cassette tapes and LP (long-play) records were all the rage.  Remember winding cassettes with a pencil?  Now that films like “Guardians of the Galaxy” have highlighted cassettes, this generation thinks they’re a novel gadget, and history begins to repeat itself with the labels of “retro” or “vintage” attached to make “old” sound “cool”!  We had an 8-track player in our car, with a cumbersome disc the size of an old Beta movie cassette case.  My father was always at the cutting edge of technology, and in the late 70s we had a laser disc player; the DVDs were the size of LP records (yet looked just like a CD or DVD of today), and we had films like “Logan’s Run” and “Heaven Can Wait”.  The technology didn’t catch on, so I’ve never known anyone else who had that contraption (an image below shows the size comparison to a modern DVD).  Another gadget we had was a set of picture frames hanging on our living room wall; they were filled with psychedelic lights that reacted to sounds, changing colours as you talked, sang, or watched television.  The topic of TVs is a whole other kettle of fish!  As the way of dinosaurs, cassettes and 8-tracks, CDs are nearly a thing of the past now, with digital clouds; even television stations will struggle to survive in the changing technology with on-demand digital providers becoming more popular.  Here are a few images to stir your nostalgia for stone-age technology:

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With so many changes happening just within a few decades, it’s easy to imagine that a century ago, things were even more different.  I wish I had statistics for Europe, but here are a few US stats for the year 1906 – 110 years ago.  Some of these items came in the form of a chain e-mail several years ago, and I didn’t forward it; even so, I’ve made new friends, I haven’t been hit by a meteorite, and I’ve been perfectly happy, despite the threats that come from breaking such a chain…

  • 18% of households in the US had at least one full-time servant or domestic help.
  • 2 out of every 10 adults were illiterate; only 6% of all Americans had graduated from high school.
  • 90% of all doctors had NO college education; they rather attended “medical schools,” many of which were condemned by the press and the government as sub-standard.
  • A 3-minute call from Denver to New York City cost 11 dollars.
  • A competent accountant could expect to earn $2,000 per year, a dentist $2,500, a veterinarian between $1,500 and $4,000, and a mechanical engineer about $5,000 per year.
  • Alabama, Mississippi, Iowa, and Tennessee were each more heavily populated than California.
  • Canada passed a law that prohibited poor people from entering into their country for any reason.
  • Crossword puzzles, canned beer, and ice tea hadn’t been invented yet.
  • Marijuana, heroin and morphine were all available over the counter at corner drugstores; pharmacists claimed that, “Heroin clears complexion, gives buoyancy to the mind, regulates the stomach and bowels, and is, in fact, a perfect guardian of health.”
  • More than 95% of all births in the US took place at home.
  • Most women only washed their hair once a month, and used borax or egg yolks for shampoo.
  • Sugar cost 4 cents per pound; eggs were 14 cents for a dozen; coffee was 15 cents a pound.
  • The American flag had 45 stars: Arizona, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Hawaii and Alaska had not yet been admitted into the Union.
  • The population of Las Vegas, Nevada was 30.
  • The average life expectancy was 47.
  • The average US worker made between $200 and $400 per year.
  • The average wage in the US was 22 cents per hour.
  • The maximum speed limit for most cities was 10 mph.
  • The tallest structure in the world was the Eiffel Tower.
  • There was no official Mother’s Day or Father’s Day.
  • There were about 230 reported murders in the entire US.
  • There were only 8,000 cars in the US, and only 144 miles of paved roads.
  • With a mere 1.4 million people, California was only the 21st-most populous state.
  • The five leading causes of death in the US:
    1. Pneumonia and influenza
    2. Tuberculosis
    3. Diarrhea
    4. Heart Disease
    5. Stroke
  • The top news articles of the time:
    1. Roald Amundsen, Norwegian explorer, located the Magnetic North Pole.
    2. Ethiopia declared independent in a tripartite pact; the country was divided into British, French, and Italian spheres of influence.
    3. Finland was the first European country to give women the vote.
    4. President Roosevelt sailed to the Panama Canal Zone. It was the first time a U.S. president travelled outside the country while in office.
    5. Reginald Fessenden invented wireless telephony, a means for radio waves to carry signals a significant distance. On December 24, he made the first radio broadcast: a poetry reading, a violin solo, and a speech.
    6. In Economy, federal spending was $0.57 billion; unemployment was 1.7%, and the cost of a first-class stamp was 2 cents.
    7. On 18 April, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake hit San Francisco, California, killing over 3,000. Though many have heard of the famous quake, a less-publicized 8.8 magnitude earthquake hit Ecuador and Columbia earlier in the year, on 31 January, causing a tsunami.  On 16 August, a magnitude 8.2 earthquake in Valparaíso, Chile left approximately 20,000 dead, while on 18 September, a typhoon and tsunami killed an estimated 10,000 in Hong Kong.  The media all but ignored such events, making the San Fran earthquake the best-known, though it was the least of all these events in the loss of lives. [Note the warning about shooting looters, from the San Fran mayor, in the images below.]
    8. A few famous births in 1906: Dietrich Bonhoeffer (4 Feb.); Hans Asperger (18 Feb.); Lou Costello (6 March).

Below are a few ads and gadgets from 1906 (gleaned around Pinterest), for your amusement:

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Novels Worth Reading

As a novel writer, I’m first and foremost a reader; I love to read, I love to buy books, smell them, feel them, upload them… any form is fine by me.  I want the books I read to be witty, intelligent, and well developed in terms of plots, characters and environments.

Kitchen Sink Realism

Everyone has different tastes – that’s why there are so many different genres; but for me personally, there’s also a list of things I don’t want in a novel:  I don’t want to be confronted with messy lives dealing with self-inflicted problem after problem; I don’t want tragic or sad or bitter endings; I don’t want to be confronted with the grit, grime, blood and gore of dysfunctional lives that end up learning nothing, making no character arcs, and end up in the mud by the end of the tale.   This genre description actually has a name:  Kitchen Sink Realism.  It was a cultural movement in Britain back in the ‘50s and ‘60s that was portrayed in films, books, plays, and art – the grit, grime, anger, disillusionment and harsh realities of realistic social scenarios.  It’s what might also be referred to as postmodernism.  My personal response to this kind of novel is, “If I wanted that kind of realistic tension, I could just go hang out at the nearest bar.”

A Tough Nut

I once had an English student, and our focus was medical English in preparation for their upcoming medical exams (two nurses came together for semi-private tutoring).  As part of the lesson we needed to work on basic conversational skills and sentence structures, and I find that the best way to bring in a wide variety of scenarios is usually to do a type of role play – nothing embarrassing, but each person is given a character to put themselves into a situation that they might not normally deal with:  They may be a chef, or a secretary, or a customer in a hardware store.  This particular student, when asked what kinds of books she read, said, “history and autobiographies or biographies”.  When asked what novels she read, she said she found such things ridiculous and a complete waste of time (this was back before I became an author!); she categorically refused to even try to put herself into someone else’s shoes for the scenarios.  My impression of her as a person was that she was narrow-minded, knew it, and was proud of that fact.  She was a hard character, and all the time I knew her or met her afterwards, I never saw a soft side emerge, either toward herself or toward others; I often found myself wondering why she’d gotten into the nursing profession in the first place – as a patient, I wouldn’t necessarily want her working on my ward…  A line from the novel I’m currently writing (Asunder, the third book in the Northing Trilogy) would have fit her life too:  “he has never had the propensity for engendering compassion; I pray he never needs it, as he never gives it.”  An epic love story might do her a world of good.

What’s Worth Reading

What I want when I read a book is to be transported into another life, whether that’s in the past, present or future, on this earth, or on another planet, or in another dimension; I want to be entertained, made thoughtful, learn something about the world around me, and learn something about myself.  Ideally, I will come away from the experience having been changed, in even a small way.  I want to feel connected; somewhere out there is a person I can relate to – whether it be the author, or the character, or other readers that appreciate the same books.

Aside from places and times that are genre-specific, such as science fiction and alien planets in the future, or London in the 18th century, all of the elements of what I like in novels are universal.  Humans the world over, in every century, want to feel connected; to feel that they can relate to something someone else is going through; even to have parts of their own life’s experiences explained through someone else’s perspectives in similar circumstances.  Above all else, at the heart of every good novel – regardless of the genre – is a story of love; that is the ultimate connection between characters.  It may be a child finding the love of a family after being shoved through the knocks of life too much for their age; it may be the hero or heroine finding love; it may be a widow or widower finding love again, or reuniting with true loves; it may be someone coming to the point in their life that they accept and love themselves just the way they are.

On to You!

When you read novels, what is it you’re looking for?  I would love to hear about it – please comment below, even if it’s just a few key words!

novel-colin-firth

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7 Steps to a Powerful Opening

bottle-opener - millennium-falcon-

A powerful opener…

Anyone who writes novels worth reading can tell you that, as with any relationship, the first impression you make is the most important.  You know that you need to get your character from A to Z through the story, but how you introduce A is more important than B through Z – in other words, if you lose your reader’s interest from the get-go, they might not stick around long enough to find out where you want to lead them.  Here are 7 steps to remember that will lead you to that great first impression:

  1. Dive in! Hit the ground running!  Begin your story in the middle of an action scene, or in the middle of a conversation.  Let your reader feel like they’re eavesdropping on a decisive moment in your character’s life.  Make them wonder, make them ask questions they want answers to!  Who’s speaking?  What’s the context?  Why is there X problem / challenge / discussion?
  2. Make your character human: Give them sympathetic traits, a relatable nature, and attitudes that readers can identify with.  Do this through dialogue and actions, or by internalization (getting inside the character’s head, an “inner dialogue”).  It will help you to prepare your main characters by writing out a biography for them.  Give them memorable names (not complicated ones, or names that are difficult to work out how to pronounce).  The main character must be somewhat larger than life (more interesting than the average person in some way); do this through giving them idiosyncrasies, habits, a quirky sense of humour, etc.
  3. Romance: If your character is real, there will be romance – some kind of heart-to-heart relationship that touches that key human emotion.  I’m not talking about slutty romance novels; I’m talking about real human connection and rich emotional landscapes, whether it’s a small-town story, a science fiction planet, or a war zone.
  4. Supporting character: This might be a sidekick, a friend, partner, companion, or even an object or pet.  It is someone or something for the main character to share their experiences with.  The supporting character should contrast your main character – perhaps someone who asks the reader’s questions, or wants explanation of terms or concepts the reader might not be familiar with, without becoming “teach-y”.  They might be the voice of reason to an impulsive main character, or the voice of adventure to a staid hero/heroine.
  5. Antagonist: This opponent is an obstruction to the main character’s goals.  They create problems, sometimes danger.  They may be human, or non-human (e.g. man vs. nature), or may be an internal struggle of the main character (haunted by their past, or an addiction, a weakness such as impatience, etc.).
  6. Emotion: Build an emotional landscape (this links closely with # 3).  Show the main character as life-like, and develop relationships, or show struggles the character has with particular issues that give them depth and breadth.
  7. Style: Bring it all together in a style unique to your character’s voice and biography.  Show their feelings, conflicts, adding complications and subplots to take it deeper.  In your first chapter the goal of your character should come out – what their desires are, their determination, problems to solve, etc. – without making the arrival at that goal all too obvious!

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