Thursday, August 25, 2016

Checking in

We're coming to the end of summer here. Lots of birdcall in the woods and the cicadas are making a racket all night long.
Not so much in my garden. A few baby lettuces. The rest is flowers. I took very poor care of my growing things so they look scraggly and neglected.

I'm drinking coffee and watching my hummingbirds. There are three of them at least. Maybe more. I have no idea why they live up here in the woods.

Soon I'll get to work.

Monday, August 22, 2016

What's Underfoot

Wench bond-street-gillray-elaine-golden
Bond Street and a passel of gentlemen
Joanna here, back with another exciting dispatch from the universe of the past. Talking about roads, in fact.

I was going to wax eloquent on road building in general, starting with the madly competent engineering Romans and going right on till I got to ugly but practical tar-bound macadam in 1902, pioneered by a Swiss doctor in Monaco.

Have you ever noticed how very many Victorian doctors invented things? I worry a bit about their patients, what with the physicians studying refrigeration, road surfaces, and coca cola instead of, for instance, gall bladders.

Back to roads.

I quickly discovered the history of road construction and law is mind-numblingly dull, so I decided to throw myself directly into what roads and pavements would have looked like in Regency London. This is not precisely enthralling, but better than Turnpike Trusts, believe me.

We're going straight to the hard, permanent, waterproof stuff laid down on city walkways and roadways to distinguish them from the endless tracks of dirt and muddy ruts with which the countryside was plentifully supplied.
Were there dirt roadways in the city of London?
Some, probably.

Wench a_view_on_the_thames_with_numerous_ships_and_figures_on_the_wharf-rowlandson 1818 crop
Probably some wheeled and foot traffic on Thames side
Wench dirt street
Here's a dirt road arriving at the edge of town
Dirt roadways approached the edges of the city, of course.

I imagine one of the welcome signs of arriving in London was the rumble and clack of London roads under wheel or hoof. The banks of the
Thames were unpaved and frankly mucky I should think and travelled by foot and the odd wagon. It's likely that some of the smallest alleys in the rookeries were essentially drainage swales washed out by the downpours and unpaved.

But on the whole, London was paved.

The rest of this little screed can be found at Word Wenches. Here.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Interview with Jeannie Lin

Interview with Jeannie Lin

Joanna here. GambledAway-hires
I’m interviewing Jeannie Lin, writer of most excellent
Historical Romances set in Tang Dynasty China and Steampunk set in an alternate but formidably realistic historical China. She writes love, adventure, complicated family relationship, and high stakes in a world that sets all our assumptions wobbling. These are not your everyday Romances, folks.

This week Jeannie and I celebrate the release of our new novellas — hers and mine — in the e-anthology Gambled Away.

Joanna:  Howdy Jeannie. Glad to see you.

Jeannie: Hello! So glad to be back here with the Wenches. Can you believe Gambled Away is finally here?

Joanna:  I'm so happy to share an anthology with you. Oddly enough, I think both our stories are, at the core, about women escaping the constraints that narrow and bind their choices. 'Taking their lives into their own hands' as you put it.

My Aimée, in Gideon and the Den of Thieves, was sold into the service of Lazarus, the King Thief of Regency-era London. One does not just walk away from that service. One runs. We see Aimée trying to free herself from Lazarus.

Jeannie: I must admit after reading Lazarus, I had big baddie envy. I want to go back and rewrite the entire last half of my story. *smacks hand* Lazarus is so dark and twisted and complicated! Completely unpredictable.
My crime lords are much more straightforward — they're businessmen. They don't make emotional decisions, which makes them neither evil nor good. Unlike everyone else in the story, they have  nothing to hide and their goals are quite clear. It's all the other characters who sneak and lie and betray one another, often times believing they are doing the right thing. 

New york bowry street gangJoanna: I’ll just reassure you that there is no lack of menace in your crime lords. Pretty chilling customers.
While my Aimée faces the obvious practical problem associated with dwelling among the brutal and larcenous, Wei-wei’s life is more comfortable -- on the surface. But it is not, perhaps, more free.

Jeannie:  There's two sides of that coin for me. Chinese women in imperial times are known for being subservient — it's a stereotype often perpetuated in the West. But for me what's interesting is the ways that women have empowered themselves while keeping the illusion that they were not wresting power. When Chinese women were forbidden to write, they came up with their own written language, for instance.

In the case of Wei-wei, she's shown herself in past books to have quite a bit of agency behind the scenes. So much so that her brother at one point complains that she gets to do whatever she wants. The servants are at a loss at how to control her, and all the while her parents believe she's the model of an obedient daughter.

From personal experience *ahem*, I can tell you that game takes a bit of wrangling! And it's much more interesting to me than a feisty heroine who's completely willing to spit in the face of society or a meek and subservient mouse who is crushed under the weight of the patriarchy.

That's what I love about your heroines. They all come alive on the page with so many layers. And they don't fall back on using sex to navigate their worlds. Aimee is a wonderful heroine to add to the team -- she knows what
Tang Dynasty woman playing polo
she's worth and made herself valuable to those around her.

Joanna: Your Wei-wei is another complex, layered heroine who deals with men on many levels, not just the sexual. Though the building tension between Wei-wei and Gao is both tender and sensual.

One element that interested me particularly in Liar’s Dice was your heroine Wei-wei taking on the disguise of a man. At first, to experience life outside the confines of a ‘woman’s role’ in a traditional society. Later, to track down a killer. 

Follow the rest of this post over to the Word Wenches site

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Posting to My Other Blog and Similar Disasters

I wrote my long and complicate post and was ready to put it up on the Word Wenches' website.

It would NOT post.

Me and technology, we are not friends.

For about an hour I tried this trick and that to get my post out of Typepad limbo and onto the website.
No luck.

I decided to refresh the page.
I was reluctant to do this because I might lose the posting altogether and that meant restarting from a file saved to my computer as an .rtf file and I'd have to redo all the niggle work of adding links and replacing paragraph spacing, which get lost in an .rtf file.
But ...

I had no choice.
Three of Eight Wenches and a building

Trembling, I reached my feminine but competent hand toward the computer. I bit my full lower lip, dreading the moment I'd destroy my document with . . . yes . . . my own index finger!

I pushed the refresh button.

Even now it wasn't too late to turn back. The system tried to warn me. "You may lose unsaved data," it whispered.

I'd heard those warnings since I was a freckle-face young girl in pigtails. My family and friends had tried to protect me. But I was a plucky, impetuous heroine and I WOULD NOT LISTEN!

I gave a whimper, husky and sensual, like one of the more appealing marmosets.

I pushed the 'Leave Page' button.

Plucky girl heroines
We all know what happened next . . .

. . . which was that the page reloaded and then everything worked fine and I hadn't lost my data so I published my posting to the website.

Sometimes good things happen to heroines, because the Black Moment time hasn't come 
and won't while I'm at the keyboard
 because readers don't give a damn what happens on a computer so writers plot their deep emotional turmoil elsewhere.

Excuse me. I have to go pick up a candle and head down to the darkened basement -- alone -- to investigate the creepy noises I hear down there.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Excerpt -- The Last Chance Christmas Ball

I'm so excited that the Last Chance Christmas Ball is up for pre-order.

In case you've missed the news, this is the Word Wenches Christmas anthology. 
Going blurbish ...

Christmas 1815. Upstairs and downstairs, Holbourne Hall is abuzz with preparations for a grand ball to celebrate the year’s most festive—and romantic—holiday. For at the top of each guest’s wish list is a last chance to find true love before the New Year…

A chance meeting beneath the mistletoe, a stolen glance across the dance floor—amid the sumptuous delicacies, glittering decorations, and swell of the orchestra, every duchess and debutante, lord and lackey has a hopeful heart. There’s the headstrong heiress who must win back her beloved by midnight—or be wed to another….the spinster whose fateful choice to relinquish love may hold one more surprise for her…a widow yearning to glimpse her long-lost love for even one sweet, fleeting interlude …a charming rake who finds far more than he bargained for. And many other dazzling, romantic tales in this star-studded collection that will fill your heart and spice up your holidays. 

Jo Beverley, Nicola Cornick, Cara Elliott/Andrea Penrose, Anne Gracie, Susan King, Mary Jo Putney, Patricia Rice, (and I) have each contributed a wonderful story.

See the prologue here.  Or drop by and see it on sale here
And at the Word Wench's blog, here, you can listen to us talking about how we wrote an intersecting group story.

My story is titled My True Love Hath My Heart. It's a second chance at love story ... with intrigue ... and disguise ... and fabulous jewels ... and Christmas sexiness. Also, plum pudding as a minor character.


“I always wondered what housemaids got up to in their leisure time.” The voice came from the door. “Theft, apparently.”
There was an instant like lightning--filled with a flash of recognition in the midst of blank surprise. She recognized him at once. How could she not? Nobody else spoke like silk over steel. Like honey and granite rock. Rough with laughter, sarcastic over the card table, whispered across a pillow--that was not a voice one forgot. She turned slowly to face him.
Nick Lafford closed the door behind him and strolled into the room. Time flowed sluggishly around him, giving her a long opportunity to feel five or six emotions in a row, all of them complicated and contradictory.
“Picture of a maid dusting the jewelry,” he said. “How thorough of you.”
“Searching it, actually.”
“We rise above the banal, then. I always enjoy rising about the banal with you.” He came to look past her into the box on the wardrobe shelf. “We have the very likeness of plunder. I feel quite piratical. Is it immensely valuable?”
“Not so far.” She closed the leather case with the rubies and put it firmly back in the tray. “If they were vegetables, this would largely be a pile of potatoes. What in the name of sanity are you doing here?”
“I appear to have joined you in ransacking with intent. Embarrassing if I’m caught at it.” He leaned to look into the jewel box and they touched, just a little. A brush of his jacket on her shoulder. A feeling of warmth at her side. Nothing really.
He said, “I’ll bet these dainty little boxes contain the good stuff.”
“Almost certainly. Go away, Nick.”
“I don’t think so. You may, eventually, be glad I’m here.” He stirred a finger into the jewels, inquisitive. “Or, of course, you may not. But I’m here anyway.”
This was so typical of him. Ready to filch jewels at her side or lead her onto the dance floor in Vienna in front of the assembled nobility of Europe. Once, he’d helped her relocate an inconvenient body. Once--
Blast him for being Nicholas. For being sneaky and single-minded and never giving up. For being clever enough to move her like a chess piece to this time and this place. For saying he loved her.
Blast her for being happy to see him again.  

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Doin' It Your Way

I wrote this elsewhere in response to somebody worrying they were not doing their plotting 'correctly'. I think they were worried about not using an outline maybe.

So this is what I said:

Writing is not like the Olympics where, as I understand it, athletes watch computer images of themselves and train to lift the left elbow a half inch on the turn so they conform to the optimal mathematical conformation. Nor is it necessarily a Tai Chi kata where one finds enlightenment by interpreting centuries-old patterns.

Writing is more like a bar fight -- not that I have been in a bar fight.

You will doubtless have noticed that writers follow many paths to plotdom. These may or may not include cats.

What we all have to do is find what works for us. We have to re-find this with every book, really, since we learn as we go along and we change as people and maybe the baby stops taking naps and some books need to be coaxed out of their cave with soap and railway shares while some need to be struck repeatedly across the head with a 2 X 4.

So take all the 'you have to's and use them to provide better drainage in the gully at the bottom of the hill and do what seems right to you. (This is known as 'The Great Permission' and you have to give it to yourself, though other writers can lend you theirs for the weekend. You will probably find used ones on e-Bay.)

You need not expect the first method to work. It might. It might not. Keep trying.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Talk to me

I was advising a young person I know about writing.

(I continue to be amazed that kids aren't taught grammar anymore, but that's a separate issue.)

Anyway. Pretty good writing overall.

I noticed something interesting. The writing was good, but when we chatted casually online about what they wanted to convey -- what they wanted to 'say' -- that was BETTER. I could lift this phrase or that from the back-and-forth convo we were having and stick it into the writing and it was fresher, more original, cooler, more apt.

So I come away thinking --
a writer needs to engage with the page as if it were a person.
We need to hold a conversation with the page.
We need to talk to the page.

Friday, May 08, 2015

Regency and the toothbrush

Vigiee  1787
In 1787, this painting made a sensation. She's Showing her Teeth
From time to time I've posted before with all my thoughts and beliefs and outright speculation that Regency folk of the middling and upper sorts were probably as cleanly and nice smelling as most folks nowadays. That is not an impeccable standard, as anyone who takes public transportation will testify. But it's also not the universal reek-to-heaven some folks think it must be.

So let's wander into the question of oral hygiene, shall we?
(And I promise not to go into anything even vaguely touching upon tooth-ache and tooth-drawers and suchlike horrors because some of you are sitting down with a nice croissant and café au lait and you do not deserve to be harrowed to your marrow.)

What did Regency folk use as toothbrushes?
Well ... They used toothbrushes.

Taking into account the sad fact that our Regency folk didn't have plastic and were therefore unable to make their dental implements in
Napoleon’s_toothbrush,_c_1795. by science museum london
This belonged to Napoleon. Could be gold, I suppose
screaming magenta and electric green stripes, they still did pretty well. The business end of toothbrushes were of stiff boar bristles or —  like this one over on the right  —  horsehair. The handles were ivory, wood, or bone, carved for a firm yet graceful grip.

See the rest of the post over at Word Wenches

Friday, April 10, 2015

Driving Left. Driving Right

Driving ... Left or Right

Hansom cab 1877 If you’ve ever been in a car, you’ve noticed there’s a certain widely practiced custom. Everybody sends their car down one preferred side of the road — left or right — depending on what country they happen to be in. Drivers are pretty consistent about this, and thus everybody’s somewhat less likely to ram into another car nose-to-nose.
 Sticking to your side of the road . . . it’s not just a good idea. It’s the law.
A more complicated view of traffic

 About 65% of the world keeps to the left — this is the US and Canada, and about all of South and Central America, also Europe, and China.
The other 35% of humanity drive to the left. This is significantly the United Kingdom, Ireland, India, and Australia.
 In one of those weird coincidence-type things, folks who live on islands are mostly left handers.  Go figure
 Are there are ancient usages involved?

See the rest at Word Wenches here.
And there's a giveaway book.

one of those Roman streets

Friday, March 27, 2015

More Gadgets for the Computer

me and computers
I have a more complicated relationship with my computer than I do with most of the humans I know.

It's a MacBook Pro and I am, on the whole, fond of it and proud of it. One major problem, however, is that the DVD player/reader doesn't work. It will accept DVDs into its mouth, but it will not play them. Having decided not to play them, it will not spit them out.

It's kinda like a two-year-old about this.

So I did some research on what kinda outboard DVD reader to get. (An outboard or external DVD player is one that sits next to your computer and plugs in.) Everybody said 'Get a Samsung 218' and so, by golly, I did.

I hooked this outboard up with the little wire provided using the Universal Directions that showed plugging the two ends into the slots they fitted.
Took like eight drawings to show this. I put the CD they provided inside the little drawer. It went whirr whirr for a minute.

So I'm sitting there thinking, "What now?'

I find the User's Manual online and download it as a pdf.
You're thinking, "Why didn't she read the User's Manual first" and all I can say is that I never look at the directions first and thus have many interesting encounters with Things I Buy.

So I open the Manual and it spends ten pages telling me not to drop the thing in water and not to put heavy stuff on it and some stuff called RoH and WEEE which may have to do with recycling. I skipped that.

It explains very carefully how not to drop it in water, actually.

Then it gets to the stuff I need to know and it starts using words like firmware -- which has a nice sound to it, though god knows what it is. Then it asks itself, "What is Buffer Underrun Prevention Technology?" and answers itself in a way that leaves me no wiser.
Me figuring out about computers

And we continue. The next page:

How to Confirm Installation of the Device Driver.
Go to Macintosh 'More Info' and click 'Device Manager'
which my machine doesn't have.
There is just no Device Manager anywhere.

Next page: 

How to confirm USB 2.0 and install the USB driver
And how to do that?
Well we just look at the Universal Serial Bus Controller, don't we?
which my machine doesn't have
or doesn't call that
or just doesn't want to talk about
and what buses have to do with this I cannot imagine.

I have reached Overload Confuzzlement Status at this point
and I am only halfway through the User's Manual.
And if I want to do anything or ask anything
the manual directs me to a website that doesn't exist.

I go to YouTube and watch some geek spend half his time explaining how to hook the wire up by putting the ends in the slots that fits
(Is this something people have trouble with? Really?)
and then lapse into incomprehensibility for a while
and then say, "... and that's how you do it."

This is what I wanted to watch all along
So I sit there and whimper
and the dog comes over and puts her head in my lap.

I say, "The hell with this" and go get an actual DVD
and take OUT the CD that came with the outboard player
and put IN the movie DVD
which is Nicolas Le Foch Man With the Lead Stomach
and that plays just fine.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Coming of the Seed Catalogs

image from

Joanna here, being topical over at Word Wenches.

My seed catalogs have arrived. This is the first sign of spring for me — not a sighting of the first robin — the sighting of the first seed catalogs. Now the truth of the matter is I don’t so much buy seeds and plant them. I live on stony, steep ground here and grow my plants in a few miserable little pots. But I dream with these catalogs. I meditate upon all the wondrous flowers and vegetables I’m growing in my mind rather than in reality.

Wenches ‘Catastrophe in the Conservatory’ by Thomas Rowlandson, c. 1816Anyhow, this got me thinking about woman gardeners in 1800 or so. The eons’ old association of women and healing
plants, edible garden herbs, and flowery borders made them natural gardeners.

About at this time botany got an intellectual boots with the Linnaean system of plant classification. Thank heavens this was one ‘science’ considered suitable for genteel women. They began collecting plants and writing about them. We have pictures of these women carrying their watering cans — dressed in a way we’d consider problematic for gardening work — headed out to botanize.

I delight to imagine the glasshouses filled with interesting specimens and women tending and caring for them. Studying them. Learning how to grow the most troublesome of their charges.
Describing the exotics.
Writing, y’know, monographs and papers.

There's a bit more of this over at Word Wenches ... here.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Technical Topics -- Breaking Comma Rules for Fun and Profit

... or, like, not
Punctuation Rule Breakage
Pro or con?

Elsewhere somebody talked about leaving out commas when he didn't like them. This is a response I made.
I'm assuming this is breaking hard rules, not just using the great expanse of stylistic wriggle-room Chicago Manual of Style and its brothers leave us.

I came up with five consideration to think about when playing fast and loose with commas. This holds true with a lot of writerly eccentricities besides comma punctuation, I suppose.

First off,
Let's say you leave out commas that do not, for some reason, please you on a case-by-case basis.

The publisher's copyeditor will have to laboriously add or remove those off-brand commas.
She really has no idea which comma-errors are done on purpose and which are true mistakes. She has to mark them all.
While she's doing all that comma work, she's not fine-combing your manuscript for other problems.
She's only got a set number of hours, most likely .
What do you want her to work on?

Managing Editore: Been a hard week
When you're confronted with her copyedits, you now have many hundreds of editorial marks and comments that you have to go through and leave in place or stet.

Then the Managing Editor picks up this complicated mess and says "I got an author here who doesn't know basic punctuation" or worse, "He's doing this on purpose?"
The Managing Editor's job is to look at every stet and say 'yes' to some and 'no' to some. You've given him work. Much work.
You have just pissed off the Managing Editor.
This is not a good thing
for anybody.

There will be some important stets you want to make. It's easier to argue for that one important stet if you have not just been stroppy over 800 missing-comma stets.

Sometimes we don't want to innovate
Whatever the outcome, the copyeditor, the Managing Editor, and you have wasted a lot of time and effort.


Finally --

While most readers won't notice commas one way or the other . . .

the ones who do notice intermittent use of the Oxford comma or failure to set off essential relative clauses with commas
will not only be distracted from the flow of your fiction,
they will see these as mistakes arising from the author's ignorance
rather than considered authorial choice
and in their heart of hearts, they will think less of you.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Defending genre

This is me, defending genre
Elsewhere, I was defending genre writing.
From folks who only like Literary Fiction.

And since I hate to waste good writing I thought I would bring that back here.

I say -- There's excellent genre. Scads of it.
So why do folks not see this obvious truth?

It's Sturgeon's Law, in part  -- "90% of every kind of writing is crap."

The difference between LitFic and genre writing is

Both excellent and mediocre genre writing is on the shelves, making a profit, being read and enjoyed, each in its own way.
Mediocre LitFic, of which there is any amount, remains in decent obscurity because it is not remotely commercial. It's not seen.

That leads to sampling error. 
You also get sampling error when you take the best books in a genre and declare them 'literary fiction' rather than 'really good mysteries' or 'great SF&F'.

Let us now praise genre and its forefathers in their generation.

Launcelot and Guinevere ... Pure Genre
Genre is story.

Storytelling is a Big Deal. Ancient as humanity. Core to what makes us human. Powerful.
What defines us?  What is our 'culture'? What books do we care about after a hundred or a thousand years?

King Arthur and the Round Table, Robinson Crusoe, Romeo and Juliet, Moll Flanders, The Satyricon, Song of Roland, Tom Jones, A Thousand and One Nights, Pride and Prejudice, Rob Roy, Poldark, The Importance of Being Ernest, The House of Usher, The Three Musketeers, Kidnapped, Last of the Mohicans.

Tales of high adventure, mystery, love, horror, bravery, sacrifice, triumph, humor, intrigue.
Pure genre.
One characteristic of this durable literature is that it was popular in its own day. Beloved up and down the social and intellectual scale. It was bestseller stuff when 'bestseller' meant stories told around the fire. 

It appealed to the hoi polloi.

So I don't so much want to hear 'noncommercial' as approval and praise.

Commercial' is not a criticism. 'Popular' doesn't mean poorly written.
Genre is the good stuff.

Friday, February 06, 2015

In for a Penny, In for a Pound

Joanna here, talking about ... well ... money.

‘Take care of the pence and the pounds will take care of themselves.’
Before 1724.

In the change purse of your average Regency housekeeper or light-hearted debutant or even your evil-eyed villain you might find farthings and halfpence, pennies, two pence -- all of those in copper. Then the silver coins, which would be four pence, six pence, shilling, eighteen pence, and half crown. You can see what they look like them and the gold coins that you as a Regency person probably wouldn’t have been carrying around in your pocket every day here.

There is a whole possibility of coins in that purse. When you reached in and pulled one out, maybe the most likely of all would be the humble and fascinating penny.

‘A penny for your thoughts’ dates to 1546.

The rest of this blog lives over at Word Wenches. Here.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

A careful, kind and intelligent reader asked me why, in Black Hawk, I used the word 'antiseptic' long before the germ theory and why Justine dissolved her antiseptic in liquid and packed it in bottles.  Why not just send the powder along on these expeditions.

(Jo clears her throat) and says 'THANK YOU' for caring enough to wonder about this.

And I haz  reasons (excuses):

As to the word 'antiseptic'. Millennia ago, long before they understood the mechanism by which it worked, folks knew some stuff discouraged infection. By mid-C18 folks had a word for that and it's the same one we use today. Antiseptic. The OED gives us a 1751 "Myrrh in a watery menstruum was 12 times more antiseptic than salt water."

The writer's problem is that 'antiseptic' sounds very modern.

So I sat for a while pondering whether I should use it. This is classic historical writer dilemma and one of the things that drives sensitive souls to drink -- coffee if not brandy, anyway. 'Historical Word Problem' hits me three, four times a book.
But antiseptic is a couple generations prior to date-of-story, so I went ahead and laid it down.

I also considered the vexed question of which medications would be carried as mix-it-yourself powders and which would be aqueous solutions or tincture-of-this-and-that. It seemed to me the choice depended on the exactness with which the solution must be prepared and how quickly the solution would be needed when called for.

I posited that Justine's mixture takes a good long while to go into solution -- thus the boiling water -- and is likely to be needed PDQ, if needed at all. Bottled at the source, it can be used immediately. Prepared In the field, it would need hot water and a long while to dissolve.  This is the same reason a modern first aid kit intended for use in the outback would have its antiseptic in liquid, ready to use, form. 
Justine includes one bottle for immediate use and also the powder for mixing a further supply.

I have her dissolve in water rather than alcohol because this is a water-soluble powder. Oddly, I find no indication folks thought of alcohol as antiseptic in 1800. It may just be I haven't researched it enough.

Carrying liquids could feel a little 'off' to the reader for several reasons. I think it's because liquid is heavy. Some part of our mind is reluctance to see clunky bottles of liquid cumbering up a medical kit that has to be carried through the jungles of Borneo or wherever.

The medical cases of the era were heavy.

Monday, February 02, 2015

Technical Topic -- Recasting a sentence

Me bringing stuff back to the blog
Elsewhere, somebody said, (more or less):

I don't like this sentence. How do I fix it?

Dressed in drab black and a Roman collar, the slim middle aged man looked at them curiously.

I took that question and brought it back here to think about it.

Sometimes we can change a word or pull out a phrase and the sentence sings. But sometimes it's better to wind back to zero on the redraft. Many tears have been shed trying to save a sentence that should just be put out of its misery.

Philosophically speaking, we look at what the sentence does. What is it about? What hopes and dreams did you have for this sentence when you wrote it?
Then we plunge in.

1) Sentences are written from strong nouns and verbs. We place the foundation of the sentence there, all four-square and stalwart and solid.
 The noun and verb of your sentence are:

Dressed in drab black and a Roman collar, the slim middle aged man looked at them curiously.

The man looked.

2) Can we find a more exact and specific noun?

... the clergyman, the reverend father, the priest, the monk, Father Dudley, the rector of the parish, the abbot, the visitor from the dioceses, the deacon ...
Let's make it the deacon.

3) Can we find a more exact, specific verb? What did the deacon do?

... hid his interest, peeked at them, peered in their direction, watched them,, studied them covertly, stared, was interested, was inquisitive, was curious, was intrigued. ...

4) One possible sentence:

The deacon watched.

which is another way of saying, 'the man looked' but now it is a specific man looking in a slightly more specific way.

5)  Heck. Let's give that deacon some action more interesting than merely observing them.  Let's have him step back into the shadows
while he's watching.
This 'stepping back' is an action-y and visual verb to make up for 'watching' being kinda dull and static. 

The deacon stepped back into the shadows, watching.

6) At this point we could set the sentence in place and go write a description of the man or some action or other interesting things. 

Somewhat more story, for example
But we got an innocent sentence sitting there doing nothing in particular. Let's put more story into this sentence.  Let's connect it to the POV character with another of those action verbs that make a visual.  Our POV character and friends can

limp in, trudge in, creep in, slip in, come to hide, take shelter ...
Our POV character and company limp in.

7) And that gives us:

When they limped in, the deacon stepped back into the shadows, watching.

8) But when --  you ask --  do the  adjectives arrive to dress up the scene?

Mostly, they don't.
We don't need to lay on a slathering of modifiers because our nouns and verbs are doing their jobs.

Our noun contains Dressed in drab black and a Roman collar because those descriptors come as a side order with the word 'deacon'.

Should we talk about  slim middle aged?
I'm going to say -- 'No.'
Here's why.

What does the POV character see?
9) Let me get into the whole Adding descriptors bit

When we are in character POV,
and we want to add visuals, sounds -- anything in the environment --
we do not just pluck the sights and sounds at random.

We add the visuals, sounds, and smells that the POV character notices.

Imagine the scene.
What would this POV guy entering the church notice in this scene?

The expression on the deacon's face?
... Probably not. The deacon is on the other side of the room.

Age? Body type?

But the first thing most people notice when entering a space is the location of the figure in it.
The location of the deacon.

When they limped in, the deacon stepped back into the shadows behind the pulpit, watching.

10) We could add more modifiers, certainly.
We could have them limp painfully or slowly.  We could make the shadows deep. We could make the pulpit tall and wooden. We could have the watching being done warily.  The deacon could be fit and middle-aged ....
Modifying is cheap thrills.

But sentences have a certain weight to them.  A certain complication and gravity. A certain amount going on.
A sentence with a certain balance and weight
I think the sentence is about as heavy as it should be. I wouldn't add more words.

We will need a description of the deacon eventually, but why not add it when the deacon is close enough to see?
Then, when we have the POV character face to face with the deacon,
we can put several pieces of body description close together into a chunk
and build a complete word picture.

One goal of adjectives is to be interesting in-and-of themselves. But it's also nice to stuff the description full of story. It's not just about how the guy looks -- it's what the appearance tells us about his character and the story.

So, some lines down, the deacon ...

-- stalked toward them vigorously
-- about fifty, with a craggy face, too brown to match this city parish
-- pale-skinned but fit
-- the upright, hard strength that came from hard work rather than a gym membership
-- in drab and durable black, worn at the cuffs and elbows

11) I'm going to add something kinda nebulous.

Maybe the basic problem with that original sentence is that it does not form a harmonious whole. The parts of if seem to have been selected at random from a bin and glued. The subordinate clause does not relate to what's going on in the sentence.  

Dressed in drab black and a Roman collar, the slim middle aged man looked at them curiously.

When they limped in, the deacon stepped back into the shadows behind the pulpit, watching.

The original sentence is of the type:

Able to leap tall buildings with a single bound, Superman finished typing his letter. 

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Technical Topics -- On Beyond Said

Elsewhere someone was wondering whether to use 'said'.
Or not.
 I keep talking about tagging, actually.
So I will do it some more.

Here are a couple of simple, basic guidelines in the tagging of dialog:

1) Make certain the reader knows who said every line of dialog. No confusion.

2) Don't forget there are lots of ways to tag dialog. Be adventurous.

3) You can almost always tag with 'he said' and you will be invisible

4) You can tag with the equivalent of 'he said' and you will be less invisible.
.....   'he muttered', 'he whispered', he 'remarked', 'he answered', 'he objected'.

5) In the choice between 'he said' and one of the saidisms,
you are about all the time better going with 'he said'

6) You can tag with an action
.....   'he began to put the fire out', 'he stabbed Guido', 'he activated the bomb', 'he put oil on the salad', 'he reconsidered'
Action tags are good.
Action that occurs close to the dialog tags it. The action has to be performed by the one speaking. It has to be in the same paragraph.

7) Tagging actions are separated from dialog by a period.
..... "Let him go." George cocked the pistol.
..... "You cut your hair." Maurice sneered. "It was a mistake."

8) Unless the action occurs inside the sentence.

There are two possible ways to do this. 

You can write this sort of sentence with em dashes. They go outside the quotation marks.
Using emdashes is beloved by the Chicago Manual of Style.
"Use emdashes," they say.
I have many issues with the CMOS

..... "I'm a friend of rabbits"--his eyes glittered--"generally."
..... "I have better things to do tonight"--he put down the gun--"than murder intruders."

I find this a particularly ugly way to indicate an inserted action. I think it distracts the reader.

The other way to do this is to use commas. 

..... "I'm a friend of rabbits," his eyes glittered, "generally."
..... "I have better things to do tonight," he put down the gun, "than murder intruders."

This may be 'incorrect' according to copyeditors, but good, careful writers are doing this.

9) 'Said' and its brother saidisms are always separated from dialog by commas.
.....  "No one does it better," Anna whispered.
.....  "A bird in the bush is worth two in the hand," Maurice maintained.
.....  Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore."
If you do not know whether something is a 'saidism' or an action, go sit and think about it for a while. Over there.

10) Do not double-tag. If an action or other method tags the dialog, don't add 'he said'. You will eliminate many 'he saids' from the manuscript by following this simple rule. Over a lifetime you will eliminate a small mountain of them.
..... NOT "You watch the door," he said loading the second musket.
..... BUT "You watch the door." He loaded the second musket.

11) Do not mistake actions performed by the mouth, tongue, lips and throat for saidism. One does not grin, laugh, mime, simper, chortle, frown, or sneer words.
Go ahead. Smile me a couple words.
The  readers won't care about this but grammar purists all over the English-speaking world are grinding their teeth. Can't you hear them?
Can one 'grind out' words? Spit them out? Cough them out?
I'm still thinking about this.

Also, one does not hiss dialog containing no 's' or 'z'.
It's not, "Fee, Fi, Fo, Fum," he hissed.

12) Many lines of dialog are tagged by responsion. We know who spoke because they are taking turns. (Middlemarch does this for pages.)
Tweedledee said, "Your fault!"
"Not," Tweedledum snapped.
"Is not."
"You're the one who put Cicero in the pudding."

13) Many lines are tagged by 'voice'. The reader knows the speaker because no one else sounds like that.

14) Many lines are tagged by special knowledge, by location in the scene, by what the speaker perceives. 

15) You can tag with Internal Monologue. This assigns the dialog to the POV character.
.....  "Probably you want to point that gun at the lizard men."  You idiot.  

16) You can tag with Internals, which also assigns the dialog to the POV character.
.....  "Probably you want to point that gun at the lizard men." George had always been an idiot.. "Not so much at the choir."


17) You can tag with Direct Address in a two-man conversation or where it tags the next line of dialog or responsion or where the Direct Address identifies the speaker. 'Not now, Papa' tags the daughter as the speaker.

Careful not to over use this. Real speak contains very little Direct Address.

In short, tagging dialog gives the writer a lotta freedom of choice. We only start out with 'said'.
We don't have to stay there. 
There's a whole big universe of clever things to do with words when we jump off and let go.


Thursday, January 15, 2015

Tobacco in the Regency

From the first importation of tobacco into Europe, to Spain, round about 1528, folks tried various ways to get the nicotine habit. By the Regency, folks had their choice of snuff, cigars, or pipes. 

Now, snuff is a whole extensive subject I am not going to go into except to say that it leads to a snuff boxes [pictures of snuff boxes] which are the delightful byproduct of a nasty habit. If I’d been living in the Georgian era I would have collected snuff boxes and carried them about full of little fruit pastilles. [pictures of fruit pastilles]

Were there cigarettes?
Well, no. Not really. Technically there was something fairly similar to cigarettes in Spain well before the Regency. They were called papelate and based on the South American custom of wrapping cut tobacco in rolled corn husks or bark or something other than a tobacco leaf. We have paintings of Spanish folks smoking this way, but no way to tell if papelate were routinely wrapped in paper.

To see the rest of this breathlessly fascinating post, (and have a chance to win a copy of one of my books,)  head over to Word Wenches here.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Timeline confusions (SPOILERS)


I've had a couple people come away from the timeline of the books a little confused.  In fact, the sound of heads banging on desks is about deafening.

So let me provide a general comment on the timeline as a Guide for the Perplexed.  And then I'll probably do it again in a week or so, but with more specificity than I can scrape together right now. And I'll only do that if I'm not buried in work of some kind or another.

We have three confusing time periods. Like ... sometimes I have two books happening at once.

1794 -- And we are in Forbidden Rose. Hawker, Pax and Justine are all young. Hawker is 12 or 13. Justine, 13. Pax, about 16.
Galba is Head of the Service. Grey has not yet joined the Service. Annique is living with the gypsies at this point. Doyle is a senior Independent Agent. Hawker is merely a raw possible recruit, on probation.

In 1794, Hawker walks onto the stage in Forbidden Rose leading a pair of tough little donkeys. About a third of the way into Forbidden Rose Hawker will meet Pax when they change duty at the watching post on Maggie's house. A bit later Justine and Hawker meet for the first time on the street outside Doyle's prison.
Black Hawk also visits 1794. This is in the first fallback section from the frame story.  We open that segment with Justine and Hawk getting together in Paris in front of the now-inactive guillotine.  This is the day after Doyle is freed from prison in Forbidden Rose.  In this segment of Black Hawk, Pax, Hawker, and Justine go to the Coach House and rescue the last Caches-in-training. 

Forbidden Rose and the 1794 section of Black Hawk then come together and end with the same scene. That's the one where Justine gives Severine into Maggie's keeping.

1802 -- This is where things gets complicated, because now we got three books involved.

In 1802 Justine and Hawker are 19 or 20. Pax is 24 or so.
Galba is Head of Service. Grey is Head of the British Section. Hawker is a young Independent Agent.

We have an 1802 segment of Black Hawk full of our three young spies saving Napoleon from an assassin. At the end of that 1802 section of Black Hawk, we see Justine shoot Hawker. This is on page 228.

The action of Spymaster's Lady opens five or six days after that shooting scene. Offstage, Grey and Hawker got picked up when Hawker was getting himself out of the Louvre. There is Hawker in prison, dying from Justine's bullet.  Annique gets thrown into the cell and they're off!!  Hawker, Grey, Annique and Doyle run headlong across France.

Rogue Spy starts when we're in the middle of the Spymaster's Lady timeline.  The two stories go forward in parallel. Action of one story happens while stuff is going on in the other.

While Pax in that tavern working up the courage to go
to Meeks Street, Grey and Annique are walking across Devon to London.

When Hawker visits Daisy's house in Rogue Spy it's been maybe three weeks since he was shot. He's only now come to terms with his final breakup with Justine. Meanwhile, across town, in Spymaster's Lady, Grey is dealing with Annique as a prisoner at Meeks Street.

Rogue Spy wraps up with the death of the Merchant but Spymaster's Lady continues. So later events like  Meeks Street headquarters getting shot up and Annique escaping to Soulier's house take place after Cami and Pax have already been married and sailed for France.

1818:  1818 is the frame story of Black Hawk. It's 16 years since Justine shot Hawker. Sixteen years since Cami and Pax, Grey and Annique married.

Hawker is Head of Service. Galba has retired. We haven't visited their timelines, but we can assume Cami and Pax, Grey and Annique have had many adventures in the intervening years, done important work, and have settled into a happy life. Maybe they have kids even.
And in 1818, Hawker and Justine marry.

So that's the way all these events spread out.
And that's just as clear as mud, isn't it?

Go ahead. Ask me something. I'll try to clarify.