If Walls Could Talk: Cicero Review

One way a writer grows as a writer is to study stories in their field. In my case, that means I like to get my hands on mysteries. I’ve been reading Andrew Cartmel’s The Vinyl Detective: Written in Dead Wax, and I cannot wait for the sequel to come out in a couple of months. Lately, I’ve also read the Richard Castle novels (mainly for the meta aspect, where the novels Castle wrote in the show actually exist), and, of course, with writing a forensic anthropologist myself, I read Kathy Reichs (I’m on her second Temperance Brennan novel).

So when James told me that Big Finish Productions had a murder mystery audio, we both agreed discussing it would make for a fun column.

Let’s get the basic details out of the way before we hit play.

Cicero

  • Written by: David Llewellyn
  • Directed by: Scott Handcock
  • Starring: Samuel Barnett (Marcus Tullius Cicero), George Naylor (Quintus Tullius Cicero), Simon Ludders (Sextus Roscius), Elizabeth Morton (Caecilia Metella), Stephen Critchlow (Etrucius), Youssef Kerkour (Titus Capito). Other parts played by members of the cast.
  • Available Here

The story moves very fast, not wasting time with a lot of setup which is something I appreciate about a mystery. A wealthy landowner has been murdered in the street. His son, Sextus Roscius, is accused of the crime.  Fair enough, I’d look at the son first.

The catch is, Sextus was sixty miles away the night his father was murdered. These days that might not seem very farbut in Rome, 80 A.D., that’s quite a trek.

I love how thorough Cicero and his brother are, even as Roman men, thousands of years before forensics, profiles, or the revolution the Sherlock Holmes stories enacted on investigation. I know when I wrote my story for The Lemon Herberts, I rode the struggle bus trying to figure out how to compensate for the lack of computers in the 1970s. Even then, I still had most of what Cicero lacked.

But that problem didn’t stop the team behind this audio. Cicero follows trails further than I thought possible for that day and age.

I’m trying to be careful not to spoil but so much of this. I think you guys should take a listen to it.

The perk of this being in Ancient Rome is that the forum allows for one of my favorite mystery tropes, the infamous breakdown.

Cicero does it and he brings up this quote. It’s something we can all learn from.

“If we are to accuse a man of murder, there are three questions we must ask. First, and most importantly of all, was the accused at the scene of the crime? Second, did he have the motive to kill? And third, did he have the means?”

1) Was the accused at the scene of the crime?

This was something I struggled with when writing Badge City: Notches. The perk of The Whole Art of Detection was that the murder happened before my investigator came on the scene. It was the only one in the story so that became less of an issue. Ironically so, because the solution depends on killing someone from thousands of miles away. 

The soon to be accused in Notches, on the other hand, was in the middle of a killing spree. Yet they had to maintain appearances at the same time.

Hence why there was a multi-page timeline, detailing where the killer was at any given moment, attempting to keep me sane.

2) Did he have motive?

Motive…

Sigh.

I stand by this being the trickiest aspect.

The thing is, any number of things can cause someone to commit a grievous crime.

What fits this particular crime, and does your criminal have a motive your audience can believe?

3) Did he have means?

This also can be tricky. There are statistics about male and female killers, killers of different ages, and so on.

If someone used an advanced drug, where did they get it? If they threw someone off a roof, do they have the strength to do it?

Can they afford to have someone do it for them?

All good questions. Questions Cicero has answers to, and you need to as well.   

Another question Cicero raises, though less essential for writers in general: “Who benefited?”

These are questions you must ask when you’re solving a mystery.

Who benefited?

It’s another way to ask that important question, “Who had motive?”

Time after time, I’ve mentioned how much I hate having to come up with motive. It’s hard, and tricky, and at times frustrating. But it often makes your mystery. It’s essential, and this understanding of how essential it is serves Circero well.

Cicero reminds me a lot of a mix between The Thin Man and the Sherlock Holmes stories, but set in Ancient Rome around the forums that were their justice system.

So what did I think of Big Finish’s murder mystery?

This audio is just around an hour, and it highlights a lot of what makes a good mystery. It’s quite compressed and moves quickly.

With Cicero, Big Finish takes what could be a several hundred page murder mystery and weaves it into a tale that is just under an hour. Not only is it a solid mystery that kept my attention throughout, it also provides a fun look into Ancient Rome’s justice system.

Cicero is an example of how you don’t need bells and whistles and fluff to have a good story. It is straight to the point, and almost completely business.

And of course, we all know that since it is from Big Finish, it is a wonderfully put together audio.

If you get a chance, pick it up from Big Finish. It’s only $5 for an hour of great entertainment.

New Call for Stories: The Chromatic Court

Anthology curated by Peter Rawlik

“I pray God will curse the writer, as the writer has cursed the world with its beautiful stupendous creation, terrible in its simplicity, irresistible in its truth…” ~Robert W. Chambers, The King in Yellow

Robert E. Chambers’ The King in Yellow features a being, the King in Yellow himself, who is embodied in the play of the same name, and in the color yellow.

We want to follow in the footsteps of Chambers, invoking links between specific colors, the mythos deity they might represent, and what influence they might have on the various arts.

For example, what terrifying things are hinted at by the titles the Black Goat, the Green Man, the White Worm, and the Red Queen, and to what arts are they linked?

Give us tales that invoke the chromatic avatars of the Great Old Ones and the impact they have on the arts, but as we all know the arts are open to interpretation, and could easily include architecture, literature, cuisine, pantomime, and haiku. Art is in the eye of the beholder, and color is only an abstract concept, but fear and terror are very real, and so are the Great Old Ones.

What We Want

Fresh takes on the Cthulhu Mythos, Chambers’ mythology (the Yellow Mythos), and Cosmic Horror. This isn’t the place for Lovecraftian clichés. The more it feels like a “lost” Lovecraft story, or relies on the clichés of the genre, the less interested we are. Creativity is the watchword.

While we are open to straight horror, we much prefer submissions closer to Chambers’ style and tone. Which is to say, we’d greatly prefer dark fantasy with a cosmic horror undercurrent. If you’re unfamiliar with Chambers: The Twilight Zone and Manly Wade Wellman’s fiction are excellent examples of that sort of tone and sensibility.

We want complex tales of cosmic horror, the arts and artists all properly hued. To avoid overlap of colors, monsters, titles, and arts story pitches must be made to the curator first (at thechromaticcourt@18thwall.com). We already have a King, and we already have a Prince; help us a fill the rest of the court.

In addition to unique and clever takes on the Chromatic Court concept, we’d prefer strong, developed characters.

Inspiration

We recommend reading Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow, the monumental work of dark fantasy that started everything. It’s the foundation of so many of the above ideas and mythology. Lovecraft linked the King in Yellow—both the entity and the play—to his own revised elder god Hastur.

T.E.D. Kline’s Black Man with a Horn linked Nyarlathotep to jazz and horned instruments, making Kline’s story an early forbear of this concept.

My own story The Sepia Prints, featured in my novel Reanimatrix, establishes Cthulhu as the Sepia Prince, and intrinsically links the being to opera.

Sundry Details

Payment: 5% of the gross profit will be paid for each accepted story. These payments will be issued to you at quarterly intervals. Stories under 1,500 words will only receive 4% of the gross profit.

Rights: First World Digital and Print.

Deadline: June 15th

Word Count: 4,000-16,000

How to Submit your Story:

  • Send your pitches to the editor at thechromaticcourt@18thwall.com.
  • All stories should be sent, as an attachment, to thechromaticcourt@18thwall.com.
  • The file must be formatted in .doc or .docx.
  • The interior of the document must be in double spaced Times New Roman (12 point font).
  • Indents must be placed through your system’s Paragraph function; do not set indents by pressing tab or space. If you already have tabbed or spaced indents, please remove them first. Please use full em dashes (—).
  • At the top of your document, please include William Shunn’s submission header.
  • Tell us a bit about yourself in the body of your email. Don’t stress this, it won’t make or break your submission.
  • Place the collection you’re submitting to, your name, and your story title in the subject line of your email. For example, “Speakeasies and Spiritualists / Rose Mackenberg / So You Want to Attend a Séance?”

Curator Bio

Peter Rawlik is the author of the novels Reanimators, The Weird Company, and Reanimatrix, and the co-editor for the anthology Legacy of the Reanimator.  His fiction has appeared in Tales of the Shadowmen, The Lovecraft eZine, Talebones, Morpheus Tales, Crypt of Cthulhu, and Innsmouth Magazine. The concept for The Chromatic Court evolved out of his story The Sepia Prints, which became a key chapter in Reanimatrix.

Taking Tea with Cromwell: Using Historical Figures in Your Fiction

Jon Black

One of the great opportunities offered by writing historical fiction and historical fantasy is option of using historical figures in your work. This device can be highly enjoyable for writer and reader alike. Examples abound, from that first great time-slip novel of historical fiction, L. Sprague de Camp’s Lest Darkness Fall to the ongoing alt-history novels of Harry Turtledove. In my opinion, the master of this art is Caleb Carr, whose novels The Alienist and Angel of Darkness make deft use of historical figures in bringing 19th century New York vividly, and often terrifyingly, to life.

Ada Lovelace, computer programmer, daughter of poetry, possessor of a great jaw.

Unfortunately, like any other tool in a writer’s kit, historical figures can be misused as well.

This fortnight’s blog posts shares some of my ideas and experiences regarding using historical figures in fiction. It’s a device I use in both of my upcoming novels for 18thWall. Part of Bel Nemeton occurs in a slightly fantastical 6th century while Gabriel’s Trumpet is a supernaturally-tinged mystery set in a variety of locations within 1920s America.

Historical figures serve three man roles in fiction.

Color: encountering an eccentric Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a combative Ike Clanton, or an enigmatically bewitching Mata Hara are just three examples of how historical figures can be a great way to add color to a narrative. Readers may indulge scenes (provided it’s reasonable in length) even when germane to the main action.

Exposition: Authors have a universe of options when it comes to exposition. But a carefully chosen historical figure can give exposition authenticity and an extra kick. If protagonists need mathematical expertise to crack the 19th century’s greatest code, who better to provide it that Ada Lovelace? How much more potent is a weird tales anecdote when delivered via Kipling sharing the one story from his time in the East he dared not put in any tale? What fish-out-of-water protagonist could want a better guide to Montmartre’s gilded decadence than Toulouse-Latrec?

Short-hand: Word economy is important. A sighting of Picasso or Rasputin, hearing Louis Armstrong blow trumpet in a nightclub or Mussolini give a bombastic speech, a brief exchange with Mark Twain or Cotton Mather; all of those immediately anchor a story in a very specific time and place for readers. Such a brief encounter at the beginning of a work or any time there is a change in venue can be quick way to set the stage and save words better used for driving the action forward.

Of course these categories are not mutually exclusive.  A figure might fulfill two or even all three capacities in a work.

Too Much of a Good Thing

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, on a very normal and presumably opium-free day

Like any other aspect of writing, the use of historical figures can be overdone. Avoid giving readers the impression you’re simply name dropping or bragging “Hey, look, I did my research!” (Of course, you want to show you did your research—but be smooth about it.)

You also don’t want to risk your creations getting lost among a parade of historical counterparts or diminish the impact of individual historical figures by drowning them out among their peers (Much as I enjoy the work, I think there are moments were Carr knocks at this threshold in Angel of Darkness).

Strength vs. Dexterity

When deciding which historical figure(s) to utilize in a work, consider there is a general tradeoff between a figures level of fame/power and the freedom you have in using them. The more minor and less well-documented your figure, the more wiggle room you have, the less research is essential, and the lower the risk that readers in the know will walk away from your work unsatisfied. If you’re using the 9th century Persian physician and astrologer al-Khaseb, you’ve got a pretty free hand. If you want Ann Bronté , Edgar Cayce, or the Venerable Bede, your latitude is more limited. And that doesn’t even touch the challenges of Elvis, Einstein, or Shakespeare.

Also, let’s not name names here, but certain historical figures are overdone.

Flowers Don’t Bloom in the Shade

Another issue to consider with a true historical heavy hitter is the relationship between that figure and your characters.

Using such heavyweights necessitates a high level of writing, especially if the figure plays an active role and isn’t merely color. If such a figure is sympathetic to the protagonist, why can’t/won’t he or she simply lift obstacles out of the protagonist’s way? Conversely, if the historical figure opposes to the protagonist, why aren’t the obstacles insurmountable? These questions need to not only answered but answered believably.

Unless your characters (especially the protagonist) are true peers of such a figure, history’s major players are best held at a distance. Indeed, their presence can be entirely off camera. “Justinian, emperor of the world’s most powerful empire,” a looming presence throughout Lest Darkness Fall, is he ultimate challenge that must be met to prevent Rome from sinking into the dark ages. Yet not only is interaction between Justinian and the protagonist Padway very limited, it all occurs via written missives between the two.

That may not be an option for every writer. If, for example, your plot revolves around the foiling an assassination of Ben Franklin by a cabal of mages, he will likely put in at least an appearance or two.

Admittedly, I flout my own advice by inclusion of Langston Hughes in Gabriel’s Trumpet. But Hughes is just such a compelling figure I couldn’t resist his inclusion. I hope to mitigate the risk, I feature him relatively early in his career. Which brings us to…

Before and After

Theodore Roosevelt, police commissioner

A possible “best of both worlds” solution is to portray a major historical figure either before or after their prime. Carr’s novels use this effectively with Teddy Roosevelt. In combination with the force of Roosevelt’s personality, his power as president of the United States could easily overwhelm a narrative and the other characters in it. Instead, in The Alienist, we see Roosevelt during his time New York City’s police commissioner. By the time Angel of Darkness rolls around, he has advanced only one rung to Secretary of the Navy.

At the other end of the spectrum, historical figures in the twilight of their accomplishments, perhaps retired or otherwise not in the limelight have great potential. In addition to providing knowledge or exposition, such individuals can serve in the role of mentor, patron, or even quest-giver for protagonists.

Through The Eyes of History

Everything that has been said thus far about using historical figures in fiction goes double if you’re making a historical figure your protagonist. (Quite frankly, it is a task I don’t feel up to at this point in my career.) Using a major historical figure here is not only a true test of skill but also a substantial commitment necessitating significant research execute believably (especially to readers with more than a cursory knowledge of the figure). Turtledove uses Robert E. Lee as the protagonist throughout much of his novel, Guns of the South. A very tall order indeed!

Snipe Hunting Through History

Historical figures included in your work need not be ones you’ve heard of previously. Once you identify general parameters of the role, an online search can turn up a cast of colorful if obscure figures. Of course, if you hadn’t heard of them previously its likely most of your readers haven’t either. On the other hand, that very obscurity can be an appealing Easter Egg for serious history fans.

Bel Nemeton required the services of an 18th-19th century figure familiar with Indian Coinage. Experimenting with this approach, I found the prodigious James Prinsep, director of the East India Company’s mints and student of Indian numismatism (and who may soon put in an appearance elsewhere).

Repeating the process with “Gabriel’s Trumpet,” I need a photographer active in 1920s New Orleans, My research turned up E.J. Bellocq, an eccentric misanthrope who served as “unofficial official” (and often NSFW) photographer for the Red Light district of Storyville.

I admit, I’m hooked. I’ve found this approach not only enjoyable but personally rewarding.

Mata Hari

If Walls Could Talk: Ode to Annoying Editors

M.H. Norris

Without our editors

I don’t know what writers would do

As much as we won’t admit

They help us, that is true.

But sometimes they spot things

We’d wish they’d just miss

But instead they find holes

That are worse than Swiss

 

So here we writers sit

At our computers without a clue

Staring at red edits

That make us feel rather blue

 

One thing our writers know for sure

Is that our editors make us look good

They constantly remind us

To write as we should

 

But sometimes that involves

Things coming to light

Those wholes of Swiss

Needing a rewrite

 

And as they hand those back

Promising they aren’t a slight

Instead they tell us

They help to make us look bright

 

So here’s my ode to editors

James, keep your ego in check

They may all drive us crazy

But at least our stories aren’t a wreck

 

Okay, I promise I’m done with the dodgy poetry. James issued a challenge and I couldn’t help but accept it and write my little ode to editors.

*takes a bow*

I’ve often said in this column that there are few things that help a writer’s career better than having a good editor.

But they, if they’re doing their jobs correctly, drive you up the wall. Like this week where James noticed a hole (a technicality really) that requires me to spend a bit of time rewriting something.

And the worst part?

He’s right.

It needs to be fixed and as much as I’d love to tell him he’s absolutely wrong, I find myself doing some research to make the necessary change.

This column was made with the idea of me talking about what I’m doing week to week. And this week I’m glaring in the general direction of my editor.

Because he was right.

And my story will be stronger because he was right.

That doesn’t mean I’m any less annoyed.

If Walls Could Talk: A Reporter’s Most Pernicious Questions (And How they Help your Novel)

M.H. Norris

I was thinking the other day. Thinking about writing mysteries, and what it takes to put together one. I think I mentioned that I currently have two bulletin boards full of index cards with various notes for the first full-length Rosella novel.

James and I were at a local college campus, recently, brainstorming for that book when I grabbed a dry erase marker and wrote upon the beloved walls.

(Seriously, I’m fully planning to someday paint a room with that paint when I get my own place, because I find it to be so helpful.)

And on one of the walls I wrote out the questions that are well known to journalists around the globe: who, what, where, when, why, and how.

And at first both James and I stared at the what, and he laughed and said my inner journalist came out. Adding that to the list, when it might not belong as much, was just me trying to use my degree.

But then, I came up with a what and after a round of “told you so” we kept on going.

Back when I was a sophomore in college and considering changing my major, I asked Karen Kingsbury (during one of her Facebook chats) about what she would say to an aspiring author. She gave me some advice and pointed me to an article on her site.

She mentioned that writers should major in journalism. Even if you aren’t publishing books, you’re always writing.

So, I changed my major to journalism.

This past week I realized that the change also helps me as a mystery writer. It all comes back to the big questions on the magic wall: who, what, where, when, why, and how.

Who

In a mystery, this is actually a two-fold question. On my bulletin board I have this split into two categories. Under the Who card on my board I mainly focus on the victims.

Who was killed?

How many?

Victimology?

Then there’s also the unsub.

Who did this?

What’s their profile?

What

It’s a case for Rosella, of course. Which means mythology and urban lore are at work in the what.

But it’s also something else~but that would be giving you spoilers. 🙂

It’s a murder, it’s a crime…You get the idea.

Where

Once again, spoilers. 🙂

But, seriously, you have a general idea of where but you have to flesh out more of the specifics. Unlike with Badge City, I’m actually using a real location so I don’t have to map it all out in my head. But you still have to take that into account. Maps, travel times, the local perspective.

When

With Badge City: Notches, I had several pages in a memo pad dedicated to when. I had one page mapping out the timeline, and then I actually drew out lines and marked out 24 hours days and what happened when.

It helps to keep your timing straight. Otherwise, you might get confused and something might happen that shouldn’t actually happen yet.

Also, the when helps your protagonist solve the crime.

When was time of death?

When was the person last seen?

Why

Another way to say my favorite word: Motive.

Why did they do it?

Why those people?

Why then and there?

The thing about mysteries is that you start out with a lot of pieces and the most common question is why.

There’s also, why is this a case for Rosella?

This is the question that is the most important to answer. Why is this case right for your protagonist

How

How did they do it?

Keep in mind, when you’re making an alibi or lack thereof, you need to be able to figure out how they did it. In some cases, it’s how they did it and managed to live their lives at the same time.

What’s the murder weapon?

What’s the cause of death?

These all feed into the how. Sometimes this answer can come from the why.

Last Thoughts

Questions that I had to keep in mind all the time as a journalism major now also play a major role in writing mysteries.

But like writing a news story, I have to find all the answers to the big questions in order to write a good mystery.

And that is truly the trick.

Literary Archaeology: Second Souls – Using Other Languages in Historical Fiction and Historical Fantasy

Jon Black

Welcome to a new series on our blog from the ever-spectacular Jon Black! He’ll stop by every other week to talk to us about historical fiction and fantasy, tactics for writing that, research, and everything you could imagine fitting under the banner “Literary Archaeology.” We hope you love it as much as we do!

To Have Another Language is to Possess a Second Soul – Charlemagne

The phenomenon of language unites (and defines) us as humans. As writers, what we do would not be possible with this most human of abilities. At the same time, languages subdivide us. While that creates problems for mutual understanding and harmony, it is a positive boon for writing…

Sprinkling the occasional word or phrase from another language into a work can serve a number of purposes. It can anchor a story in a specific time and place. A note of the exotic can be lent to a location, action, or item. And, while it’s important not to bleed over into stereotyping, a language can be used to provide some shorthand in conveying information about a character.

These are things I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about recently. Much of the action in the series “Bel Nemeton,” which I am honored to be authoring for 18thWall, takes place in Sixth century Arthurian Britain. Its rich cultural tapestry of Celt, Saxon, and even lingering Roman influence was matched by an equally rich linguistic pallet. That is something I wanted to bring to life in the series.

But I am not a polyglot. Nor are most writers. How can we handle languages we don’t speak? As writers, we often treat subjects in which we lack deep expertise. Language does not need to be any different. Fortunately, resources are available, even if the language is extinct.

Before beginning such a journey in your writing, it is useful to decide what your level of commitment to accuracy is. There is no one right answer here. Accuracy is a virtue, but it is not the only virtue. Remember, you are not a linguist, you’re a writer. As authors, we have finite time and must make hard choices about how best to spend it. It doesn’t make sense to spend 20 hours ensuring that your presentation of two words of Gaulish is perfect when those same hours could be spent in more broadly applicable research, actual writing, or editing.

Depending on the language in question, the challenges and available resources for using it in fiction fall into three categories.

Scenario 1: Living Languages

Those seeking to drop Dutch, Swahili, Navajo, etc. into their manuscripts have a plethora of options at their disposal, at least compared to other scenarios. These options break into three general categories:

  • Reaching out to native speakers, translators, or academics. Some, understandably, will want to charge you for their services. Others, as long as your request is not terribly onerous, may be willing to assist a writer pro bono (do not forget to thank them in your work).
  • Online or hardcopy dictionaries, lexicons, and primers.
  • Online translators such as Google Translate and BabelFish. While decent and getting better all the time, remember these programs are not perfect. Be certain you’re okay with that before relying on them as your sole source.

When using the last two DIY options, be aware these often present words in the simplest form possible. If you are using a phrase or entire sentence in your work, the language likely has rules about case, tense, or part of speech which can modify those words, sometimes dramatically. Dictionaries and lexicons will have, at best, limited information of how to handle this. Primaries often contain the necessary information but that can be quite time consuming. Online translators attempt to make the necessary adjustments but, as noted, are imperfect.

Scenario 2: Well-Documented Extinct Language

Using an extinct language is a challenging proposition but often squite doable. Some extinct languages are relatively well documented or even effectively translated (Ancient Egyptian and Aramaic are commonly encountered examples). In such cases, online and hardcopy resources similar to those for living languages maybe available. A handful of these languages even have alleged online translators (though I cannot vouch for their accuracy). The surest bet is to work with a qualified academic (as above) but that doesn’t meet every author’s requirements.

Scenario 3: Poorly-Documented Extinct Language (Or “My Problem With Pictish”)

But what do you do if you want to use an extinct language which is poorly recorded and understood? While exceedingly challenging, it can also be intellectually engaging and very satisfying exercise. This is the situation I found myself in recently. Fortunately, even in this case there are options, which I will examine using my own challenge as an example.

The second novel in my series, tentatively titled Caledfwlch, features the Picts prominently. As part of bringing that ancient people and their land to life, I wanted to be able to use some “Pictish” in the story.

The Pictish language (or perhaps dialect, see below) was spoken in what is now northern and eastern Scotland between the Fourth and Tenth centuries, after which it was eclipsed by the language which evolved into modern Scotts Gaelic. Very few records of Pictish have survived, mostly as brief mentions in Irish or Welsh sources.

First, a caveat. As with my delving into Pictish, our objective as writers is not a fully accurate recreation of an extinct language (a task that often beyond the world’s best linguists). Our goal is humbler, being able to drop an occasional “Pictish” word or phrase into our works for effect.

I began by looking at a language tree to confirm how Pictish relates to other languages, living and dead. Understanding the extinct language’s relationship to other tongues, especially any descendant or related languages provides a foundation for “recreating” that language in your work. If you are uncertain what language family your tongue is in, that information can be quickly found online.

In my case, I learned that, outlier claims to the contrary, overwhelming academic consensus is that Pictish was an Insular Celtic language and a member of the Brittonic/Brythonic (P-Celtic) sub-family. Opinion is pretty evenly divided whether Pictish was a sister language to Common Brittonic or just a dialect of it. Either answer means that the living languages most closely related to Pictish are the ones descended from Common Brittonic: Breton, Cornish, and Welsh.

Of those three languages, Welsh is the one with the closet geographic proximity to Pictish. Decisively so, if one recalls the now extinct Cumbic dialect of Welsh. Cumbric was spoken well into now what is southern Scotland and probably directly adjacent to the lands of the Picts. So, I made the assumption that Welsh was likely the closing living relative of Pictish.

Therefore, I used Welsh as my baseline for “Pictish.” Whenever possible, I used Old Welsh or Middle Welsh sources … and was delighted to find a few online. When those could not give me what I needed, I turned to the plethora of Modern Welsh resources as well as good old Google Translate.

After identifying a Welsh translation for the word or phrase I wanted, I then made another decision. Sometimes I used it directly as “Pictish.” Other times I arbitrarily changed a sound or two. Obviously, this is not a scientifically sound way to actually recreate a language. But, as long as I’m upfront about the liberties I took, I hope it creates a plausible, if fictitious, facsimile that helps bring that fascinating people to life in my novel.

So, my solution to using a poorly documented extinct language was to identify the closest living language (or nearest well documented extinct language) and use it as inspiration for the language I was trying to recreate.

Find Jon Black at JonBlackWrites.com

If Walls Could Talk: Letters from Myself

M.H. Norris

I came home from work on Monday to find an odd piece of mail. It was from my Alma Mater but two things made it stand out:

  1. It listed me as Mary Helen Norris. Normally, my Alma Mater refers to me as Mary.
  2. The address was handwritten.

My mom had sat it down because she noticed it as well. Both of us were curious. So, I opened it and took a look at the letter inside and couldn’t help but laugh.

Sometime while in college I wrote a letter to myself that was supposed to be mailed to me at the end of the semester. I guess it got lost somewhere along the way, because it was postmarked a few days ago.

The thing is, I had to have written that at least two–if not three to four–years ago. James and I have bickered about what it says, and where it is in my personal timeline.

But gosh, so much love to long ago. To the M.H. Norris who hadn’t quite become the mystery maven and sci-fi sorceress you’ve come to known and love.

And yes, I know y’all are dying to know what the letter said. But I’m not going to share it. Partially because it’s between the days long past and the ones that hadn’t come yet, and partly because it made me realize something.

Though honestly, it’s something I’ve known, I just got a reminder in the form of a letter from my younger self.

Things can change drastically in a seemingly short amount of time. The Mary Helen who wrote that letter didn’t have a book out (nor second, with both receiving awards), she wasn’t on a podcast, and she had maybe (depending on when it was written and I honestly don’t remember writing it) just been introduced to Doctor Who.

James loves to tease me about how my writing was when we first met, and how I’ve grown so much as a writer since then. Even book-to-book I feel like I do a bit of growth as I learn more about me and my writing process.

I’m tempted to write another letter to myself and leave it somewhere to open in a few years. I wonder where I’ll be then?

In the letter, I talk about a couple of projects that I have either left or sat to the side. In the letter I see that I’ve grown a bit as a person and a writer since I wrote that message.

There’s my advice for you today.

I met someone once who writes but I honestly wonder if they’ll ever make it anywhere with their craft. I know, that sound so harsh but it’s the truth.

Why do I think that?

Because they aren’t willing to learn and grow in the craft of writing. They think, because they’ve done it for a number of years, that they are a good writer, and that people will enjoy their stuff, and that I didn’t understand whenever I suggested changes or offered critiques.

And the sad thing is, they had talent and potential there.

So here’s my advice to you today, dear readers of this column. As writers, we will never stop learning. We will always be learning and growing in our craft.

You have to/ You can’t settle for anything less than your best and it can (and should) grow and change.

Every so often I find a couple of notebooks I know are hiding in my room. They contain short stories that I wrote ages ago. When I do come across them, and read them, I can’t help but shake my head and laugh at the antics of my younger self.

You wouldn’t recognize the writing style of a young M.H. Norris. Honestly, you might not even recognize my writing style from 2010.

Trust me when I say that that’s a good thing.

Before I sign off this week, let me say this one more time in case you’ve just been skimming: Do not hit a point in your writing where you think you cannot improve.

Because growing as a writer is half the fun.