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Science Undusted: Prince Rupert Drops

Let’s talk about shattering glass. As one does.

Probably as far back as molten glass was first produced intentionally by man (i.e. not volcanic glass drops formed naturally, which are known as Pele’s tears) drips of molten glass fell into the glass blower’s water, kept nearby to cool the glass products in. Sometimes, these drops have particular strength, and these alone are true Prince Rupert Drops.

The English name is a classic example of who knew who, and who wrote the history books: The drops had been made Mecklenburg, northern Germany, since 1625, though some think they go back as far as the days of the Roman Empire; they were sold around Europe as toys or curiosities. In 1660, Prince Rupert brought some of them back to London as a gift for King Charles II, who then gave them to the Royal Society to investigate and attempt to reproduce. Thus, Rupert’s name has gone down in history – for bringing back a souvenir for the right person.

Their unusual strength comes from how they cool; when done right, they will come out shaped like a tadpole with a long, thin tail. The heads can be struck with a hammer or shot with a gun, and they will not shatter; but if the tail is knicked or disturbed, the entire drop shatters into glass dust instantly, from the tail down.

Not all drips of glass cooled in water produce Prince Rupert Drops, also known as Dutch tears, Prussian tears, or Batavian tears; the difference is their behaviour and is probably influenced by impurities or inclusions in the mineral composition of the material used. Higher quality glass produces pure Prince Rupert’s Drops; low quality may simply not have the tension created in the cooling process to be a shattering success. I have a drop of molten glass, found on a beach in the Scilly Isles (UK); it is the result of a shipwreck from around the 17th or 18th century, and the drop is full of the impurities of the orginal glassware plus black flecks of cinders from the burning ship. The tail was snapped off over time, yet the head survived – thus, it was not a Prince Rupert Drop.

For a cool video that explains the science behind the drops, including slow motion analysis of the shattering, just click on the image below; the video is from one of my favourite YouTube channels, Smarter Every Day. For further behind-the-scenes footage of another experiment that Destin did with these drops, click here.

Prince Rupert Drop

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History Undusted: Bells

Recently, my husband was catching up with the articles on my blog, and he made the cheeky comment that I’d written about everything except the history of bells. Now, I know that’s not true – there are other things out there I still have yet to discover – but I took up the challenge; hence, this post. The history of bells, or of anything, for that matter, is an audacious title; as Mark Twain once said, “The very ink with which all history is written is merely fluid prejudice.” At best, such an online article can skim the surface of any historical topic; my purpose is not to give an extensive report – it’s to whet your appetites to search out history for yourself. I “undust” it for you – it’s up to you to grab it by the horns and hang on.

Every country has their favourite bells: Americans have the Liberty Bell (“At noon, on the Fourth of July, 1826, while the Liberty Bell was again sounding its old message to the people of Philadelphia, the soul of Thomas Jefferson passed on; and a few hours later John Adams entered into rest, with the name of his old friend upon his lips.” – Allen Johnson); the Brits have Big Ben (it’s the actual name of the bell, not the clock tower) and other, regional celebrities; the Russians have the Tsar Bell, in Moscow; the Polish have the Sigismund, located in Wawel Cathedral in Krakow, Poland. but where did they come from originally? What was their original purpose?

The oldest known bell is from around 2000 BC, from Neolithic China, and it was made of pottery tiles. As far as historians can deduce, the bell has always been associated with two social functions: As a signal for messages, such as when a work day would begin or end, and for calls to religious ceremonies or as reminders for specific times of day for various rituals. The sound of bells have always been associated with divinity, likely because it was a sound unlike any natural sound known to the people who heard them ringing out over a great distance – they could hear them, but not see the source of the sound. In ancient times, when most people were both uneducated and superstitious, it’s not hard to follow such reasoning.

Bells can range from tiny jingle bells to several tonnes; the Great Bell of Dhammazedi was the largest bell ever made, in 1484, for King Dhammazedi of Hanthawaddy Pegu (Lower Burma), and weighed 327 tonnes. It was placed in the temple of Shwedagon Pagoda and stolen by the Portuguese – whose ship promptly sunk under the weight of the bell.

Today, church bells still ring out across Europe, calling parishioners to church services, as well as ringing out on the hour to mark the passing of time. They ring out in special ways for various celebrations, whether weddings or holidays such as Christmas, New Year’s Eve, and Easter.

16th century Islamic painting of Alexander the Great lowered in a glass diving bell - Wikipedia

16th-century Islamic painting of Alexander the Great lowered in a glass diving bell – Wikipedia

Certain kinds of bells hold special value: Ship’s bells are like catnip to divers – they’re the primary method of identifying ships, as their names are engraved on the bells even long after the painted names on the hulls have succumbed to the sea; they are a wreck-diver’s trophy of desire, and always hold special place in their collections. An interesting link between diving and bells is that the first actual diving bells – the rigid chambers designed to transport divers from the surface to the depths and back – were shaped like ringing bells; the air would be trapped in the upside-down chamber, allowing a person to be underwater and still breathe. The first description of its use is recorded by Aristotle in the 4th century BC; the most famous diver from that period is Alexander the Great.

 

English has many idioms associated with bells: Alarm bells ringing (or set off alarm bells, or warning bells going off – i.e. your mind is warning you about a danger or deception in a particular situation); to be as sound as a bell (to be healthy or in good condition); when something has (all the) bells and whistles (extra or entertaining features or functions that aren’t necessary, but nice-to-haves); Hell’s bells! (an expression when one is surprised or annoyed); something rings a bell (i.e. sounds familiar); saved by the bell (i.e. a difficult situation is ended suddenly by an unforeseen interruption); with bells on (i.e. if you go somewhere or do something with bells on, you do it with great enthusiasm or energy); to bell the cat (i.e. undertake a difficult or dangerous task); something to be as clear as a bell (i.e. clearly understood); pull the other leg/one – it has bells on it (i.e. you don’t fool me); one can’t unring a bell (once something has been said or done, you can’t unsay or undo it); the final bell (the end of an event or, euphemistically, a life). I’m sure there are more – if you know of one, please leave it in the comments below!

There is also a powerful experience written by Corrie Ten Boom, a Holocaust survivor, about the Bells of Forgiveness – you can read her story here.

If you’ve got an hour to spare, BBC has an hour-long “History of Bell Ringing” video on YouTube.

So there you have it: Bells, undusted, to pull your rope cord and get those bells ringing in your head, to find out more for yourself!

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History Undusted: Agafia Lykov – Surviving in the Taiga

Agafia Lykov - Siberian Times

Agafia Lykov. Photo credit: Siberian Times

I recently came across a documentary about a woman, Agafia Lykov. I’d come across information about her family years ago, and had intended to write an article about them;  life happened, and I forgot about it, so I’m glad to do it now.

 

The Lykov family were part of what is known as the “Old Believers” – Eastern Orthodox Christians from Russia who refused to submit to the new regulations laid out by the Patriarch Nikon of Moscow, between 1652 and 1666. At a time when religious affiliation was political power, they were viewed as a threat and were shunned and persecuted. In 1936,  Karp Lykov’s brother was killed by communists during Stalin’s religious purgings, and he fled with his wife and two children into the Taiga wilderness, an inhospitable region of Siberia. In this isolation, 250 km (160 miles) from the nearest settlement, two more children were born; Agafia was born in 1944.

The family was a living time capsule; they weren’t aware that World War 2 had come and gone; they missed the birth of the Space Age, though they knew that something had taken place when rocket chunks began raining down in the Taiga near their home, as they are under the flight path of the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan (if you have Google Earth, just search for her name; her homestead is marked). Survival was difficult, and they had to work constantly; in 1961, the mother, Akulina, starved herself to death in order to give the children a fighting chance of survival when food was scarce. At one point, they were forced to eat their leather shoes to survive. Agafia’s teeth have been worn down from eating such tough foods.

In 1978, they were discovered by accident when a geology team’s helicopter was searching for a place to land in the remote wilderness; they saw the homestead and decided to trek to it when they’d finally landed. Most likely as a result of contact with outsiders, in 1981, three of the four children died of pneumonia. At first, the geologists thought the children were mentally disabled, as they spoke a strange lilting and chirping language; but they soon realized that it was simply the isolation and family dialect that had developed a shorthand between themselves; Agafia actually speaks two languages: Russian and Old Slavic, which modern Russians cannot understand (it would be the same for English speakers to hear Old English; it’s related, but unrecognizable to its modern version).

Born into such isolation and alone since 1988, Agafia is surprisingly informed about the wider world; she has left her homestead for populated areas only six times since contact with the outside world began, but she prefers her home – the world is too busy for her, too many cars, bad air in the cities, and no peace. Her beliefs are also a time capsule; she only knows what her father taught her, and has had no teaching beyond that; her prayer book is over 400 years old, a family heirloom, and one she uses every day.

In January 2016, she was airlifted to a hospital in Tashtagol, Russia, due to pain in her legs caused by the cold. Before the end of the month, she had returned home – all the time she was away, she was worried about her goats and chickens, and about Georgy, and Old Believer who had come to live with her to help in her old age.

I find her life fascinating; she is an example of the unquenchable human tenacity to survive, and thrive in any environment; she is content with her simple life, as hard as it is, because it is what she knows; she knows of modern conveniences, and has accepted some things – learning how to make bread, or accepting supplies such as salt and flour (as long as the products don’t have barcodes on them, which she considers a “mark of the beast”); but for the most part, she wants nothing of the modern world.

To watch a 35-minute documentary (made in 2013) of her daily life, just click on the image below.

Agafia Lykov - Titlovi-com

 

 

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History Undusted: The Origins of Basketball’s Jump Shot

Everyone who’s seen basketball has seen a jump shot; but at some point in the past, someone came up with the idea of becoming airborne over the basketball court when no one else had ever done it before. And that someone was Kenny Sailors. An unassuming elderly man now, if you passed him on the street, you’d never know that his way of thinking changed a sport forever. Click on the image below to hear his story.

Kenny Sailors

 

Originally posted on History Undusted, 20 February 2014

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History Undusted: A World War II Love Story

Once in a while I come across amazing stories; this one is truly one of dedication, perseverance, love, and gratitude.

Peggy and Billie Harris were married just 6 weeks before he was sent off to war as a fighter pilot over Nazi-occupied France in the Second World War.  Six decades later, Peggy finally found out what happened to him, no thanks to her own government.  Deep gratitude to, and a friendship with, a small French village is just one result of her amazing patience and quest for the truth.  Click on the picture to hear about this amazing story. (9½ minutes long, 3-part story)

 

Peggy and Billie D. Harris, 1944

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Google is a Verb

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.

Teens using museum app

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!

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Odd Jobs #6: Face Feelers to Fortune Cookie Writers

I can’t believe it’s Saturday again already!  Our exchange student teen is off to France for a fortnight, so we’re breathing the air of liberté!

Taking a break from the current daily post challenge, here’s the next lineup of odd jobs:  Some can earn good money, such as being a Foley Artist for Hollywood, while others are as obscure as you can get, like being a fish sampler.

In doing the research for this article, I was shocked to find out just how prevalent fake Facebook accounts are; it says a lot about the superficiality of modern culture, and how much need there is to have our feet firmly planted in reality.  It is a known phenomenon that Generation Z (Millennials – enjoy this song by Micah Taylor) seems to get their own sense of worth online; but the number of likes, follows and subscribers should never reflect how much someone is worth, or valued; they need more of us to value them in real face-to-face time, or to express it via the virtual world in uplifting words of encouragement.

So enjoy this list of oddball jobs, and click on their links to learn more.  Then help make the world a better place:  Think about how you can encourage someone today!

Odd Job - Fake Facebooker

  • Face Feelers, also known as ‘sensory scientists’: Trained to use their hands and judge the effectiveness of products like lotions, facial cleansers, and razors. 
  • “Fake” Facebooker (According to Wikipedia, 7% of Facebook users were not real in August 2012). As of October 2012, Facebook crossed the 1 billion user-mark, which means that no less that 87 million accounts are fake.  Their “job” is either to con someone out of personal information in order to steal identities, or to amass “likes” for a video or personality to help them go viral, reaching fame or notoriety.
  • Fireworks Salesman
  • Fish Sampler
  • Flatulence Smell Reduction Underwear Maker: Tasked with engineering underwear that reduces the typically unpleasant post-fart stink for people who suffer from gastrointestinal problems.
  • Flavorist
  • Floating Architects: Design amphibious houses, which can float on water. With waterfront real estate becoming a scarcity, their market niche may grow in the coming years.
  • Foley Artist: Use whatever they can find to create and record the noises used to make the sound effects in films, like heavy footsteps, rolling thunder or creaking doors.
  • Food Stylist
  • Fortune cookie writer: Hired as freelancers or in-house writers to come up with inspiring or witty fortunes. EHow.com estimates that these professionals earn around $40,000 a year.

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Musings A to Z Challenge: B

Challenge:  Write a short entry (100 words or less) on a topic beginning with the sequential letter of the alphabet.

Breath

 

Breath is such a simple thing, in some ways; it’s easy to ignore what a gift it is until it’s the last one.  For those with asthma or other illnesses that affect the lungs, it’s never taken for granted.  Though it’s merely air that passes through our lungs and in and out of our noses or mouths, it can convey so many messages:  Sensuality; warmth; coolth (yes, it’s a word); exasperation; satisfaction, and even attraction.  It can be turned into a whistle, and has even inspired the concept for an upcycled air-conditioner in third-world countries. Ain’t breath cool?

Breath

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How To Boost Your Focus

I’m probably the most organised person I know; I’m not OCD about it, I just work better when things are organised.  Writing a book means that I accumulate bits and pieces of information, research facts, website links, editing tips, formatting guidelines, historical trivia that I can integrate into my plot (but only if I can find it when I get there), maps, diagrams, lists of names in various languages, grammar points to remember (I’ve made up a word for “points to remember” – poitrems – you heard it here first), How-To cheat-sheets for PhotoShop, publication checklists (pre- and post-), Shelfari to-dos, and… need I continue?  I’m just getting started.  And that’s my point.  If I’m not organised, I’ll waste half my day looking for something… where did I put that note about the dimensions of a modern casket?  Was it hot arsenic or cyanide that smells like garlic?  Are blue diamonds more valuable than pure white?  What kind of micro-organism poops arsenic?  A friend of mine complimented me one day when I told her some of the things I was researching; she said, “You’re just weird.”  And it’s something my husband repeats fondly on a regular basis.

So, I’d like to share a few of my organisational tips with you:

1)  Know thyself.  Know your weaknesses (You know, those distractions, procrastination excuses, time-eating habits like “just checking into Facebook for a minute before I sit down to write” and an hour later you’re hungry, then you see that the kitchen needs cleaning… you know who you are.).  Recognize those time-wasters, and nip them in the bud before they mushroom into a day wasted.  Keep your cell phone at a safe distance; wear earplugs if you need to; turn on music if it helps you focus, turn it off if it distracts you.  Write down points to research and only dive into research when you have 5 items on the list (and stay away from time-monster sites like Facebook and Youtube while you’re working!)

Character Profile Worksheet 12)  Find a system that works for you.  I organise my notes, etc. in various ways:  I have pocket-sized Moleskin books for quick reference character profiles, lists of words, family trees of characters, etc.; I also have lined notebooks with those heavy-duty post-it tabs labelling the sections (that are well-spaced apart for future additions); I write the section names on the front and back of those tabs so that I can find it from either way the notebook lands on my desk.  For instance, one notebook I always have at hand has sections like publications, pre- & post- publication to-dos, paperback formatting checklist, KDP guidelines, CreateSpace guidelines, grammar, PhotoShop Elements helps, editing checklists, proofing checklists, Beta checklists, and step-by-step guides for various publication formats.  Another notebook I keep on hand has things like time-related notes (Julian calendar terms, Ages [Stone Age = ~6,000-2,000 BC], etc.), medical notes (that’s where I put that note about modern casket dimensions), glossaries for archaeological terms, 18th century England notes, lists of museum curators’ names, phone numbers and emails, etc.  Besides notebooks, I keep “cards” – here’s an example (to the right):  I type up the information in PowerPoint, then save each “card” to .jpg format through MS Paint.  These cards are then saved onto my Tab through Dropbox, and Bob’s your uncle, I’ve got them handy whether I’m writing on the couch, on holiday, or in a café.

Pomodoro Time Management Tips3) Learn to focus.  I’ve recently found a great way to focus better through those hours of the day and night when I know I’m going to be most distracted:  It’s called Focus Booster.  It’s basically a timer on your desktop that counts down time increments, with an additional break-time at the end of each cycle.  The standard unit of time is 25/5, though you can adjust it to your rhythm.  The thinking is that anyone can focus on a given task for 25 minutes, even those who struggle with ADD.  In using it, I’ve realized how often I get distracted by a thought that comes into my mind while writing and I get up to do something quickly.  This way, I stay working for a solid amount of time, and use that 5 minutes to switch gears and get other things done; it’s amazing how much you can get accomplished in 30 minutes.  I’d encourage you to download it and give it a try if you struggle with concentration.  Here’s a second card I’ve made with the basic principles for the Booster.

Those are just a few ideas; if you struggle with a specific area, or would like suggestions on dealing with specific challenges in focusing, just ask away!  Focus well, and your writing will flow so much more smoothly and swiftly.

 

 

 

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Writing to Distraction!

Squirrel_DugIf you’re a writer you know exactly what that title means.  Working on a project usually requires research; I don’t know what I’d do without internet connection, honestly – I’m too busy to take a day and plough through the local library, and as my local library consists of 99.9% German books anyway it’s not very helpful for writing English novels.  I have an extensive library here at home, and my research section is better equipped than the public library… but I digress.  Sometimes distractions come at you from every side; I feel like those dogs in “Up”… Squirrel!

And that’s the point.  Let’s say I go to YouTube for research:  It’s a great place to find out how to do just about anything, from how to throw a keris dagger and the aerodynamic difference between the wavy and the straight blade; how to make a vase out of a plastic bottle; how to make yarn from plastic bags; how to make an emergency stove out of a coke can or a light bulb out of a PET bottle with water, and the list goes on and on and on and on.  There are also hundreds of documentaries available on YouTube, from entertainment like the Horrible Histories series, to astronomy, science, history, you name it.  But if you’re like me you are interested in all of the above; and like Pringles, it’s hard to watch just one.  When I need a change of pace I also like to watch things on YouTube like the Actor’s Studio series, or talk show interviews (and we don’t have English-language television channels, which is actually fine by me – we use our television for sports programs and DVDs – but I digress.  Again.).  And YouTube is just one resource.  I have dozens of links to glossaries, websites that specialize in various aspects of history, science, technology, historical fashions, linguistics, etymology or other areas of interest, reference and research.

An important rule in dealing with online information is to have it confirmed by legitimate sources before using it, for instance, as a basis for anything substantial in a novel or other work of literature.  That rule has led me more than once to buying a book online.  In researching for The Price of Freedom and Redemption, I was especially frustrated with online research in the area of accurate apparel:  1788 was a world of difference in England to 1790, as the French Revolution changed fashion sensibilities in England – people distanced themselves from France, and patriotic influences as well as English fashion designers and trend setters came into their own more because of the vacuum.  But most online research that I came across either had the 18th century all lumped into one style, or “1700 to 1750” and “the latter half of the 18th century” which meant “French Revolution and thereafter” nine times out of ten.  Dubious at best, that.  Not even contemporary paintings are an accurate reference, as many of the “new middlings” had their clothing, and even background houses and gardens, “augmented” (read “upgraded”) for their paintings to add elegance to their new money.  And often, when I search for “18th century” I come across sites that actually mean the 1800s (that is, the 19th century).  My definitive source of information on that topic has become “The Dress of the People: Everyday Fashion in Eighteenth-Century England.”

So in trying to find one tiny little detail for fleshing out a scene, one can spend hours surfing, reading, searching, scanning and getting distracted by something else interesting along the way.  Yesterday I spent hours trying to find online PDFs or text of any kind from actual October 1789 The Times (London) newspaper (I’d have been satisfied with any month of that year!), just to find out what topics were being written about in the newspaper at the time aside from the Revolution.  What were the gossip columns writing about?  What kind of advertisements were there?  What were things considered newsworthy in that newspaper that year?  So far, Research – zilch, Time Spent – 3+ hours.  I looked at archives.com, Google images… nothing.  If anyone knows a resource for that, please let me know!! (If you think it would be impossible to find such old bits and pieces online in the cyber age, think again; I’ve found all kinds of documents far older that have been digitalized; someone out there is interested in it besides me, and chances are, someone has uploaded it into cyberspace; it’s just a matter of finding it in the static of cutesy videos and brainless teenage selfies…)

It can be so easy, and so enticing, to “waste” hours researching.  I try to follow two rules, and perhaps they’ll help you save time as well:

1)  Set a time limit for research.  When I need a break from the manuscript, but I don’t want to stray too far, I look at the clock and set myself one hour to find something on my research list.

2)  Make that research list; as you’re writing, keep a list somewhere (I have an e-post-it on my desktop) of things you’ll need to research, and do it all at once or in organized chunks.  It helps keep you focused on the manuscript, and makes the time you spend both on and off the actual script more efficient.

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