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If Walls Could Talk: Do Your Due Diligence: Research What You Write

M.H. Norris

Let’s talk this week about a topic that, in the last few days, has become near and dear to my heart.

When writing, do your research

Seriously, take some time, and do your due diligence and make sure you at least know what you’re talking about.

Otherwise, imagine me staring at you with a glare. And then think about what you’ve done.

Your writing without research.

Jon Black does a fabulous blog every other Thursday–right here–where he give you insight and looks into what it takes to write historical fiction. If you haven’t read any of his posts, I suggest you do, because I find them to be quite interesting and he covers things I wouldn’t necessarily think about.

And while I’m plugging him, keep an eye out for his upcoming book, Bel Nemeton which is due out with 18thWall soon.

When I wrote Badge City: Notches, I came in to it not completely sure what it took to write a standalone book, let alone all the ins and outs of a police procedure. The time when I got the assignment, to the due date the publisher set, was less than 16 weeks.

I had my work cut out for me.

To focus, I narrowed everything down to two questions:

How do I write a police procedural?

And what do I need to know to write it?

This launched me into a month-long mass-research session. I grabbed a couple of books off of Amazon, grabbed FBI papers, another scholarly research article on serial killers, a couple of case studies on some of the more well-known examples, documentaries, anything at hand.

And I also binge-watched about eight seasons of Criminal Minds when I couldn’t handle real research. You might have noticed that if you’ve read my stuff, because my protagonists tend to use the term UnSub. I think Rosella even loosely gives the BAU credit for the term in Midnight.

I still have the books, and I’ve gathered more. I’ve got books on police procedure and investigation, forensics, private eyes, weapons, and a couple other topics. Research for Badge City: Notches was the backbone of research I take with me into every mystery I write. Now ehn I approach Rosella, I can study things in addition to that.

When I started to begin to develop the idea of Dr. Rosella Tassoni, I grabbed a couple of Kathy Reichs Temperance Brennan books. I also watched most of Bones (I need to finish the next to last and last season so no spoilers please and thanks–I’m also behind on Criminal Minds though I know a lot of their spoilers).

I even bought a forensic anthropology textbook. Honestly, I’m eyeing another one and might end up caving and spending the money on it eventually.

This isn’t me saying, I know everything. Because trust me, I don’t know about a lot when it comes to the field, but I learn more and more everyday. Google is my friend and I can easily find articles about various topics.

Do you realize just how small the internet has made the world? I can find a journal article from a British publication with one search and then turn around and go to a university on the West Coast with the next.

Different topics, different insights, all help me to get a well-rounded idea of what I’m talking about.

Every writer knows there’s some things you know about your characters, your world, your subject that your readers may never see. Information that you tuck away in case you revisit them or it just never comes up.

But we know.

And just knowing and feeling confident in what you know shines through in your work.

Because, if you don’t, it could drown out everything else in your writing. No amount of solid character development, no amount of carefully planning your plot can help.

We’d like to think otherwise. Shoot, even I’ve said people come for the plot and stay for the characters.

But if you are consistently getting things wrong. That might be all people notice or remember.

So where are some methods to collection information? Sure, we know the internet’s there. But how do you get great, useful information from it?

1) The Internet

Let’s take a moment to note that yes using scholarly sources is a good idea. Academic papers or articles are there for free. Others sites built up a reputation or are run by people who compile it into easy to read formats.

These are usually good for quick reference or to get a couple different views on something.

It’s made the world so small and let’s you check out information on far away places. For example, I set Badge City in California and was able to do research on the differences in their laws from what I’m used to and various policies change state to state.

Use the resource. It’s invaluable. Plus, there are other writers who spend their time writing blogs. I keep an eye on a couple, for various things. Here are some James and I especially recommend:

2) Print

Nothing beats an old classic.

And nothing quite beats the smell of books. Trust me, my room is full of them, they’re occupying various nooks and crannies battling it out for space.

But there’s valuable insights to be found and people have taken the time to write reference books on it.

Writer’s Digest has a ton of these resources and I encourage you to take a look. I have a handful of their books that I find to be very useful.

As a crime fiction writer, here are some of my favorites…

  • Police Procedure and Investigation – Lee Lofland
  • Howdunit: Forensics – D.P. Lyle (actually anything by him really – I wander to his blog now and then as well)
  • The Writer’s Guide To Weapons – Bejamin Sobieck
  • The Crime Writer’s Reference Guide – Martin Roth
  • Amateur Detectives – Elaine Raco Chase and Anne Wingate

Sometimes I find stuff at used bookstores, or i pick up other’s from various places. Amazon is your best friend. I once grabbed two books (including an autographed copy of one) for less than 10 bucks (shipping included, if memory serves).

Fiction works along with non-fiction. Like I said above, I grabbed Kathy Reichs and enjoy reading her. Another one I enjoy is Andrew Carmel (see last week’s post).

Another thing that goes hand in hand with this is magazines. Does your character have a specialty with knowledge you might need? Is there a specialized publication for that? Chances are, yes. Then pick up an issue or two or get a subscription. You stay up to date on the field and as a result, so does your character. James’ subscriptions to various archaeology magazines have fed more than a few of my upcoming stories.

3) Ask An Expert

Some have blogs for such a reason as this. Others publish articles for various publications. Maybe you know someone, or the character is inspired after them. I couldn’t have written Badge City: Notches so well without having some friends and family on call to walk me through their day, or answer the questions that come up on a 3AM writing binge.

There’s no source quite like a real person.

And so many professionals would be thrilled to tell you about their work, and answer some basic questions. Just be sure to respect their time–and give them a signed copy of your book when it comes out!

Conclusion

A little research goes a long way when it comes to writing. Just like we strive to grow as writers throughout our careers, we should also strive to know more about our subjects.

After all, writing a novel is a long marathon.

Make sure you train properly. 

Announcement: Meet Our Blog Coordinator, Soph Iles

James Bojaciuk

18thWall Productions is thrilled to announce a new member of our time–the excellent Sophie Iles–who will be taking charge of our blog. She’ll be handling the posts, working with our authors, bringing in new bloggers, and making your 18thyWall blog experience one of your favorite daily website visits!

Get to Know Soph

Sophie Iles is our recent addition to the team as our new Blog Coordinator, and she is British to boot. She’s renowned for constantly wearing odd socks, spiking her short hair to odds-defying heights, and bringing up Doctor Who at any given opportunity.

Lovingly referred to as a ‘Joan of all trades’ by friends, Sophie has been a production assistant, an unqualified teacher, a coffee shop barista, and A Build A Bear mascot—but her real passion is a love of characters, and how they develop in a well-woven tale.

Her worldly knowledge spans a cozylook on animation due to her arts degree to her untamed love of story-telling since she was given a amateur class in mythology by her wizen old grandmother.

Sophie can be reached on her Twitter, Tumblr, and by email. You can also find her currently hiding out in Cardiff, United Kingdom.

Literary Archaeology: Writing the Wind: Weather, Climate, and HistFic

Jon Black

The Frost Fair of 1814 by Luke Clenell

This started out as a post about the promise and peril of writing HisFic in which I used the recent Doctor Who episode “Thin Ice” as a case study. But watching the episode, seeing the Frost Fair over the Thames and the elephant making its way its way across the thick ice, I kept veering off into reflections about the possibilities for using weather and climate in historical fiction. Ultimately, I surrendered to these tangents.

The Frost Fairs, fetes held in concurrence with irregular freezings of the Thames (which largely brought London to a standstill anyway) were a real thing. Even the elephant was liften from the pages of history, homage to an actual pachyderm who bravely crossed river near Blackfriars Bridge in 1814.

Another aspect of the 1814 Frost Far was disappointingly omitted by Dr. Who writers: the production of a commemorative book, Frostiana; or a History of the River Thames in a Frozen State by printer George Davis. As an added gimmick, with modern aficionados of meta will appreciate, all the books were typeset and printed in a stall erected over the frozen river.

The Frost Fairs occurred, in years the Thames froze solidly, across a broad swath of the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries. Unsurprisingly, these dates coincide with a period known as the Little Ice Age when mean seasonal temperatures in most parts of the globe fell significantly.

That makes Frost Fairs the kind of exotic yet specific element that brings historical fiction to life for readers … and is fun for authors to write. The Little Ice Age is hardly the only distinctive weather/climate event with potential for writing HistFic. I have expanded on it, and provided a few others, below.

Event of 535 A.D.

What remains of the Ilopango Volcano today

A brief but devastating period of global cooling and violent weather that is now tied by many scientists to a Volcanic Winter caused by the catastrophic eruption of either El Salvador’s Ilopango Volcano or Indonesia’s Krakatoa.  Consistent cloud cover and cooler temperatures created famine in locations as diverse as China, Ireland, Mesoamerica, and Peru. Famines begat plague as well as touching off a wave of often violent migrations as hungry populations went off en masse search of sustenance. Among the civilizations believed to have fallen or been weakened at least in part by the Event of 535 A.D. are the Byzantine Empire (largely from the Plague of Justinian), India’s Gupta Dynasty, Mexico’s Teotihuacan, sub-Roman Britain (as consequence of the movement of hungry Saxons and Vikings), and the Sassanid Persians.

The Little Ice Age

Depending on the specific location, the Little Ice Age might have begun as early as 1300 or ended as late as 1850.  Several explanations have been advanced for the age and, operating over so long a period, it likely resulted from multiple interrelated factors. Whatever the causes, the effects were dramatic.

That one could sometimes walk from Manhattan to Staten Island over the ice seems unremarkable when the parts of the Bosporus and the Bay of Galveston occasionally froze solid. Snow was taken for granted in Lisbon, Portugal.

Further north, effects were more serious. Frequent flooding altered coastlines and river courses in Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands. Iceland was isolated, famished, and lost half its population. Norse populations in Greenland vanished entirely. In Asia, China saw its agricultural zones shift southward and its coastal regions battered by intense typhoon activity.

Blame it on the Rain.

All this had profound social consequences. The hungry, displaced, and weary populations of the Little Ice Age have been linked with everything from increased political radicalization (English Civil War, American Revolution, French Revolution, Revolutions of 1848, etc.) to witch hunting panics stretching from Salem to the Harz Mountains.

Of course, every Little Ice Age has its silver lining. A number of musicologists have suggested that that the old, dense woods of Little Ice Age forests may explain (at least in part) the superlative acoustic properties of instruments made by Antonio Stradivarius.

Year Without a Summer (1816)

As with the Event of 535 A.D., the Year without a Summer was caused by a Volcanic Winter, in this case resulting from the eruption of Indonesia’s Mount Tambora. Piggybacking on the effects of the Little Ice Age, it overtaxed already strained agricultural systems. Europe saw shortages and food riots in France, Switzerland, and the UK. A typhus outbreak occurred in Ireland. Freezes occurred as late as August while severe storms and torrential rain flooded major rivers. In North America, crops in New England and Canada failed. While there was no widespread famine there, food prices (and social unrest) rose sharply. China saw regional famines accompanied by widespread desertion from the army.

William Turner’s sunset paintings were made possible by a disaster half a world away.

Conversely, the dense atmospheric particulates of the Year Without a Summer led to brilliant sunrises and sunsets, captured in landscape paintings of the period. It also stimulated widespread interest in scientific agriculture such as mechanization and chemical fertilizers.

A few parting thoughts about how climate might play into historical fiction:

First, as the above examples indicate, climate has a significant impact on the rise and fall of civilizations, cultures, and nations. This is true of gradual long term change as well as cataclysmic occurrences like the Event of 535 A.D. or Year without a Summer. With the glacial (see what I did there?) pace of climate change, land is often settled which is cultivatable under favorable climate conditions. When climate shifts again, however, the land proves to be inhospitable. This kind of sudden decline in carrying capacity has been pointed to as a factor in the fall of the Anasazi (or, if you prefer, Ancestral Puebloans), classical Mayan civilization, and civilization’s first blush in Mesopotamia (possibly catalyzed by widespread deforestation).

Don’t Have to Be a Weatherman to Know Which Way the Wind is Blowing.

Second, humans have always understood weather … but they haven’t always understood meteorology. A Neolithic farmer might actually be a better weather prognosticator over his or her little bit of dirt than a trained 21st century meteorologist. But the Neolithic farmer (and, indeed, most humans until the early 20th century) don’t really see the big picture and don’t understand what drives weather. For much of history, extreme weather is likely to be viewed as divine omen, direct evidence of God’s/gods’ displeasure, or the work of the black magic or infernal forces.

If Walls Could Talk: The Vinyl Detective: Necessary Storytelling Lessons from this Fantastic Mystery

M.H. Norris

As a mystery writer, I love to find a good mystery that not only keeps me on the edge of the seat, but also keeps me guessing from cover to cover.

As a reader, I love to find a novel that makes me want to stay up far longer than my practical side wishes, because I need to know who did it and I need find out what’s at the end of the twists and turns.

Back at L.I Who last November, I discovered a mystery that does both.

If you haven’t picked up a copy of The Vinyl Detective: Written In Dead Wax by Andrew Cartmel go out and grab one.

Seriously, go.

Now.

I’m not kidding.

Whether you’re writing mysteries or just writing in general, Andrew Cartmel shows off his decades of experience in writing with the best mystery I’ve read in a long time.

The sequel, The Vinyl Detective: The Run-Out Groove, was released yesterday. I’ll have to chat about it at another time because I’m not that fast of a reader (or my deadline for this column isn’t that late–I’ve heard it both ways).

Let’s talk about writing lessons you can learn from Andrew Cartmel and The Vinyl Detective.

Also, in case you missed it, Andrew Cartmel came and hung out with us at the Raconteur Roundtable for this week’s episode. He gives some great insight into his writing process and I highly recommend you take a listen.

Four Lessons You Should Learn From The Vinyl Detective: Written in Dead Wax

1) Keeping Your Readers Glued From Cover to Cover

A couple of weeks ago, I talked about the Doctor Who episode “Smile,” and how bad pacing ruined the second episode of Series 10.

To make this column as well-rounded as possible, I’m going to point out a good example of pacing so you can see how it’s done correctly.

That example is Written In Dead Wax.

It doesn’t start slow, it throws you right into the story, even if you don’t realize it right away.

Our nameless protagonist, the Vinyl Detective, goes out and looks for albums pressed in vinyl. At some point, he’d made business cards boasting that he would find any album someone asked him to. Someone takes him up on that, asking him to find an extremely rare jazz album from a company who went out of business shortly after making the record.

Sounds pretty simple, right?

We go through his process as he explains it to the character his employers have assigned to tag along.

And every time you feel like you have it figured out, every time it seems like it’s slowing down just a bit, Cartmel throws in another twist, another turn, and off you go again.

Pacing is vital to keeping your story going and with mysteries, it’s hard to find the best pace. You’ve got to plant clues and suspects, backstory, the crime itself, investigation, and guesswork.

On top of that, you’ve got a protagonist who needs to be developed, as well as anyone who is helping them out.

With mysteries, you have to figure out where to insert various pieces that make the puzzle seem to come together.

And Cartmel does it without you realizing he’s doing it.

2) Adding just the right amount of suspense into a story keeps your readers glued to the pages

Let’s all take a moment and be perfectly honest with ourselves, we love mysteries that constantly tell us, “but wait, there’s more.”

And if we didn’t see the more coming, the reveal is so so so satisfying. Ask James, I didn’t see some of the bigger twists coming–and he would get messages as I freaked out, because I was so excited and it surprised me.

I love being surprised like that.

So thank you, Andrew.

Suspense and pacing go hand in hand. Suspense will help your pacing, lack of suspense–lack of forward momentum and the threat of things going wrongly–will kill your pacing.

The perk of mysteries is that they lend themselves to suspense. Who did it? Why did they do it?

I know a couple of mysteries that even kept my grandfather up much, much later than someone his age should have been up. I do have a rather found memory of him sheepishly coming into the dining room the next morning and admitting that he’d stayed up later than either of his much-younger grandchildren, because he couldn’t put a book down.

At least I come by it honestly.

Those are the books we remember, the ones we recommend. And the secret behind those recommendations is the suspense.

Part of what helps build suspense is getting your readers invested in your story. I told this story ages ago, but I’m going to retell it again.

When I was doing research for a project, I read a book about screenwriting and it suggested I watch a show that only ran for one season, Commander in Chief. But the book insisted the writing was good. So good that if a reader had the chance to check it out, they should.

It happened to be on Hulu, so I watched, and the writing was good, but I reached the series finale that turned out to be the series finale…I realized why it only made it one season.

I wasn’t invested in the characters.

As a result, I wasn’t invested in the story.

I didn’t care who won the fight between the protagonist and the antagonist, because I didn’t have any reason to be invested. I still find it odd they managed that.

Which leads me to…

3) well-written characters in a living, breathing world

The Vinyl Detective, even without a name, has quirks, hopes, dreams–methods to his madness that, together, result in a well-developed, well-rounded character.

Characters. I’ve done post after post after post about them. The one thing I take pride on is my characters. They’re fun to create, and sometimes they manage to take on a life of their own.

Earlier today, James and I were talking and he jokingly suggested another short story collection idea for Rosella. One with a terrible, terrible premise that’d make her hate life. After he told me, I looked at him and said “Rosella hates you now.”

And she would.

On top of the protagonist, we have a number of side characters who compliment him.

You can know a lot more about your characters and what makes them tick than what appears on the pages of your book.

Or what to tease and what to reveal fully.

So many options and so much time to have fun…

Regardless, creating compelling characters will drastically increase the success of your book. Check out Cartmel’s book and see how he develops a handful of fun quickly characters that all compliment each other and all contribute to getting the book to it’s end point.

So much of characterization comes from their backstory. Now when I say that I don’t mean their date of birth, first crush, and favorite movie. I mean the things that happened to them previously that are relevant in the current situations. It fills in a character’s aspects, which might not mean much on their own, with meaning and emotion.

The Vinyl Detective is hired by Nevada’s employer to find an extremely rare LP from a West Coast company that went out of business decades ago. So, not only are we getting the quest for the record. We get the story about it. That’s right, backstory applies to MacGruffins too.

Who was involved in the project?

Why was this the company’s last LP?

What happened to them?

Why is the original different from remakes of this LP?

What does “written in dead wax” even mean?

All of these questions are answered. Some of it we didn’t necessarily need to know but Cartmel takes the time for us to understand the importance of the record we are watching our protagonist trying to find. It just lends a little something extra to the book, the backstory, the finer details that Cartmel took the time to write for us.

There’s a fine line between info-dumping for the sake of “backstory,” and weaving it into the story, so that the reader feels glad it was there.

This fine line between info-dump and meaningful backstory has three aspects: relevance, interest, and ability to keep the story moving. 

When the Vinyl Detective meets someone who is involved in vinyl restoration, we learn quite a lot about this character. All of it is relevant to his role in the story; his involvement in

It’s genuinely interesting, while still being connected. And because of both its relevance so far, and how interesting it is, all of the backstory that makes this character a real person also gives Cartmel a way to expand the plot outward. Someday, I might do a spoiler-post on just how this was done.

4) There is something to the saying “Write What You Know”

When he asked Ben Aaronovitch, his friend and author of the Rivers of London series, what the secret of a writing a bestseller is…Aaronovitch responded, “Write what you love.”

Andrew Cartmel loves to collect vinyl. He also has cats. So when he sat down and wrote a novel about a cat-owning vinyl fanatic, he didn’t have to do but so much research to translate that character and his world into The Vinyl Detective.

There’s just a level of something that you get when you know something, and when you love it. Even though you fictionalize things a bit, knowing and loving your stuff helps.

Cartmel’s passion for the subject shines through his story and it kept my interest on a topic I hadn’t considered before. He also chats about it more on the episode that we released yesterday (in case you didn’t take my hint to go listen at the beginning of this–seriously, go, it’s a fantastic interview).

The Vinyl Detective: Written in Dead Wax is honestly the best mystery I’ve read in awhile. With fun, compelling characters, fascinating backstory, and twists and turns that kept me up late at night, I enjoyed reading this one.

And I can’t wait to read the sequel.

Seriously.

Go get it.

Now.

The Raconteur Roundtable #8 – Script Doctor (Who) & Vinyl Detective – Andrew Cartmel

Andrew Cartmel, mystery author and former Doctor Who script editor, joins the gang to reflect on his new novel–The Vinyl Detective: the Run-Out Groove (which you need to read immediately), his favorite authors, and his time on Doctor Who. Join us for an extended discussion on the art of novel writing, and the first Vinyl Detective novel, Written in Dead Wax. We take it apart, and see what made it such a great novel. Then we have exclusive information on just what happened to Andrew’s “lost” Torchwood episode, explainations for one of Ghost Light’s enduring mysteries, and the best novel-outline system we’ve heard of. Andrew also compares writing fantasy, of a sort, with his and Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London comics vs sci-fi like Doctor Who. Nicole Petit joins the gang for the main interview. All this, and and M.H. and James duel over duels.

The Raconteur Roundtable #7 – Memories, Doctor Who, and Big Finish Competitions – Ian Atkins

A delightful discussion with Ian Atkins on his role at Big Finish Productions, his memories of Paul Spragg, a look back at the first year of the Paul Spragg Memorial Competition and helpful tips for this year’s submissions, what Doctor Who should be, The Second Doctor box set and “The Story of Extinction,” fancy kilt, and Frazier Hines’ puppet show. All this, and Ben Kasson’s best Rick and Morty impression. If that’s not enough for you, M.H. Norris is shocked to silence at one of Ian’s revelation.

Worthy of Stories: Cagliostro, Prince of Quacks?

J Patrick Allen

A new, monthly series by J Patrick Allen–author of Dead West–featuring his investigations into lives and events which are…worthy of stories. It’s your one stop shop for inspiration, and the hankering urge to think, “Hey, I should use that in a story.” Look for it the first Monday of every month, only on 18thwall.com.

There was a legend of a magician, loved by the common people and scorned by the nobility. He traveled all of Europe, collecting a menagerie of hundreds of disciples. He treated the sick and the afflicted free of charge, drawing crowds so thick that the constabulary had to step in. This man knew the secrets of the philosophers and could transmute lead into gold. Born of an exotic origin and knowing of powerful secrets, he came to spread the wealth of his knowledge.

Or did he?

I first hear the name Cagliostro in Hayao Miyazaki’s amazing Lupin The Third adventure, The Castle of Cagliostro. The movie itself was loosely based on the Arsene Lupin novel, La Comtesse Cagliostro or “The Countess Cagliostro.” In truth, Cagliostro had no castle, and his ties to any sort of noble title were tenuous at best. Still, in trying to track down some of the inspirations for one of my favorite Miyazaki movies, I came across some really interesting stuff.

According to his detractors, the “Prince of Quacks” Alessandro Cagliostro was born under the humble name Guiseppe Balsamo. Throughout his history, Cagliostro styled himself as a noble magician and alchemist. Even from an early age he claimed to have secret knowledge of things. At the age of twenty-one he convinced a local silversmith of the existence of a great treasure nearby. All that was needed to acquire it was a small sum of silver to acquire the necessary tools. But when they arrived at the site to begin the dig, Balsamo attacked the silversmith and fled with his money. For his part, the silversmith reasoned that the djinns guarding the treasure must have possessed the young man.

After learning forgery in exchange for an evening with his young wife Serafina, Balsamo took on the name Alessandro di Cagliostro and traveled to London. Here he met the legendary alchemist and occultist, the Comte de Saint-Germain. Here, he was also inducted into the order of Freemasons.

During this time, he spent his days traveling mainland Europe, attempting to win converts to and build lodges for his new style of “Egyptian Freemasonry.” He began acting as a physician for the poor, winning acclaim and adoration from the common folk for refusing to accept payment in exchange for his services. In addition to these small things, he began holding seances. In later years, those seeking to discredit him would lay claim to witness testimonies by disciples and street-children who helped his confidence game by rigging the seances.

One of the episodes for which he is perhaps most famous is a confidence-game plotted in France, involving a lady-thief named Jeanne de Valois-Saint-Rémy, a desperate jeweler, and even Marie Antoinette herself. The necklace in question had been crafted for a particular noble woman who proved unable or unwilling to purchase the finished product. Having gone nearly bankrupt on material cost alone, the jeweler was desperate to unload the necklace. He soon learned that the only people who could possibly afford it were none-other than the royal couple itself.

Multiple times, Antoinette refused the necklace, stating the money would be better spent elsewhere. Jeanne, pretending to be an intermediary for the queen, conned the jeweler into “selling” her the necklace. She then attempted to pawn off the diamonds individually, but was caught and arrested. There is speculation as to Cagliostro’s participation in the events, or whether this was a convenient moment for the Vatican to implicate him in something. After all, Freemasonry was illegal according to the Catholics.

After fleeing France, Cagliostro was picked up by the Roman Inquisition. He died in prison a short time after, suffering multiple strokes in one day.

Several works and testimonies have been produced in the years afterward, supporting or attacking the assumptions that Cagliostro was the man he claimed to be. In present times we are now quite sure that he was what his enemies claimed: A charlatan and a fake, a confidence artist of a scale one simply does not see anymore. He is certainly a product of his time: An age when mysticism was high, and one with the proper connections and charisma could support themselves as a supposed “adventurer.”

Whether he was what he claimed or not, one certainly has to admit that he led an interesting life—a life worthy of stories.

Tell Me More

How to Ruin a Queen: Marie Antoinette and the Diamond Necklace Affair by Jonathan Beckman [Da Capo]

“Occultist, Charlatan, Adventurer—Who Was Count Cagliostro?” by Esther Bergdahl [Mental Floss]

“Cagliostro” [Faust]

J Patrick Allen grew up exploring the American West with his family. He climbed mountains, fished, camped, visited the family cattle ranch, and explored a castle. Author of the Dead West series, JP writes about the monsters we take with us. Every week you can listen to JP on the Rocket Punch Radio podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, and TuneIn, where he and his friends hold roundtable discussions about all things geeky. In 2016 his story “Dragon Shadow” was awarded Best Short Story from the Pulp Ark New Pulp Awards. When he’s not hard at work, he and his wife can be found curled up with a beer and a book or game. And you can find him at his website, https://www.jpatrickallen.net/.

The Raconteur Roundtable #6 – Forever Fallen – Big Finish Competition with Joshua Wanisko

Joshua Wanisko, winner of Big Finish Productions’ Paul Spragg Memorial Competition, joins the gang to talk about his winning Short Trip, “Forever Fallen,” as well as a wide-ranging number of topics from Doctor Who, to Roger Zelazny, to literary drinking games, to Lovecraft eZine, to con experiences. Nicole Petit, the guest-hostess-with-the-mostess, stops by to discuss a primer on where to start with classic Doctor Who–both in the televised stories, and Big Finish audio adventures. All this, and M.H. has quite the adventure; you don’t want to miss this!

Literary Archaeology: Words, Words, Words

Jon Black

Language changes over time. Consider the following examples:

  • “The very first thing I noticed was my awareness of the susurrus of the house and rock, now one with the sea’s slow movement.” August Derleth, The Mask of Cthulhu (1958).
  • The word whisky signifies water and is applied by way of eminence to ‘strong water’ or distilled liquor. The spirit drunk in the north is drawn from barley … it is strong but not pungent and was free from the empyreumatick taste or smell.” Samuel Johnson, Journey to the Western Islands (1775) (Not fiction, but it’s what I happen to have at hand.)
  • “When I did hear the motley fool thus moral on the time, My lungs began to crow like chanticleer, That fools should be so deep-contemplative, And I did laugh sans intermission.” Shakespeare, As You Like It. (1599).

Go back much farther and you’ll bump into questions of mutual intelligibility…already thorny and ponderous by the time of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and absolutely opaque by the time we hit Beowulf.

The point to all of this is that different times and places have very different methods of speaking–and ones that we as readers can identify even if we don’t know all the rules.

Using archaic or obsolete words, phrases, or manners of speaking are a potent tool for writers of historical fiction and historical fantasy. It adds color, flavor, and can provide useful shorthand. Dropping period vocabulary or idioms into conversation or description help set time and place.

While some authors (and their loyal fans) will disagree, for most readers a little period language goes a long way. Remember the goal is to draw readers into your work and make the setting more colorful and vibrant. Your goal is not to send your readers scrambling for reference material after every third word, like Middle Schoolers encountering Shakespeare for the first time!

For me, the most effective formula is to lay it on a little thick at the beginning but then only periodically afterward (and ramp it up a little bit whenever there is a scene change that would feature a similar shift in language).

Fortunately, a number of resources are available to help you get the most of out of period dialogue and vocabulary … with minimum investment of time and money.

Online Resources                                                                     

A search will turn up any number of clickbait articles with headlines like “You won’t believe these 20 shocking words nobody uses anymore.” They’re fun, they’re not necessarily wrong, but caveat emptor, baby! A more targeted search, including the name of the era and possibly a few weightier terms such as “lexicon” or “vocabulary” will bolster the quality of your results. Of course, if you want the platinum standard, it’s hard to get more authoritative than the OED, which maintains its own lexical graveyard at https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/explore/archaic-words.

Books

If you’re willing to lay out a little cash, a number of books on the topic are available as well. I have a fondness for W.R. Runyan’s 1,001 Fun and Fabulous Forgotten Words and Phrases and, especially, Jeffrey Kacirk’s Forgotten English. The latter takes a quality-over-quantity approach, drawing on Kacirk’s talent for tale telling as it digs deeply into the etymology of each word presented.

You can also try a more targeted search leading you to things like Halliwell’s Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words From the Fourteenth Century.

Getting really deep into it.

Remember, most of the books are written with a broad audience in mind. Any serious writer or philologist will look at some of the entries in these books and say “People don’t know what that means?”

Period Resources

There’s no reason to limit yourself to what other contemporary writers and historians have said about the era you’re writing in. You can go directly for sources from the period in question.

Period Books

When trying to use period language, an obvious angle is to look at the books of the time. Want the sound of a world-wise, and rather world weary, nineteenth century American? Look at Twain’s words. Hoping to cop the elegant language and sharp slang of Lost Generation dilatants? Dive into Fitzgerald, Barns, Joyce, or, for a more harrowing take, Elliot. Need to channel the feverish musings of a brooding intellectual in the last days of Tsarist Russia? Look no further than Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

Journals and Diaries

Of course, there is a limitation on using period books in this fashion. All fiction and most non-fiction presents a stylized reconstruction of natural speech that is designed to impact the reader in some way. For a real emphasis on authenticity, focus on journals and diaries. These sources are the most felicitous to the way people of a given time period actually thought and spoke.

The Samuel Johnson quote above is instructive in this capacity. Nothing beats Johnson and Boswell for capturing the tone of a witty erudite gentleman of eighteenth Britain, especially one believing his words are relatively private.

A surprising number of such texts are available without having to dive into a distant archives (though, if you want to, go right ahead).

A special variation on this theme are transcripts. If you want to know what a meeting of the Royal Geographic Society in 1837, and the kind of people who attended it, sounded like, you can go look it up! But remember, any event that merits a transcript was probably sufficiently formal for that to be reflected in how people spoke as well. Don’t confuse it for casual conversation or the language of the street–any more than people using Robert’s Rules of Order would be a good insight in twenty-first century colloquial English.

Thesauri

Peter Mark Roget, creator of the modern Thesaurus

One of my favorite possessions is a 1962 Thesaurus that I consult regularly for sheer novelty value. Without it, I never would have known that a “standpatter” was an obstinate person or that “green good” could refer to either groceries or counterfeit. If you can’t find a thesaurus that perfectly matches your project, do not despair. Because the goal of a thesaurus is to present a reader with all the optional synonyms, words often continue to appear in a thesaurus for a decade or two after they’ve fallen out of common use. Modern thesauri date only from the mid-19th century, you’ll need to look at one of the sources above.

If Walls Could Talk: Writing at a Pace that Makes Your Readers “Smile” (Doctor Who)

M.H. Norris

Doctor Who is now two episodes into its new series and, honestly, in terms of quality they were vastly different. In this column, I try to share with you lessons I learned in writing; and after watching “Smile” on Saturday night, I saw something and wanted to share it with you.

When they first showed off the emoji bots and mentioned that they were the centerpiece of an episode, I stared at them and shook my head, not surprised and honestly dreading it. And to my surprise, they weren’t completely horrible. I found myself watching–but not loving it. It wasn’t until the very end Iput my finger on what was wrong.

I’ll come back to it in a second.

Let’s talk pacing.

Small towns in the Deep South have often been described as asleep, slower than the infamous New York Minute. People move at their own pace, learn at their own pace.

And stories move at their own pace.

This is a hard one to really show and talk about, in abstract. But then “Smile” seemed to open the door. Because the majority of the problems with the episode aren’t conceptual, but mechanical.

“Smile” fell flat due to a pacing issue.

Let’s break down the average 1-hour television drama and let me talk about some of my observations.

Taking out the commercials, there is roughly 42-44 minutes of actual programming in an hour timeslot. Traditionally, and I mentioned this in a blog post ages ago, crime shows–like Psych on USA Network–finally solve the case and resolve the crime in the last 7 minutes of the show. That’s the last sixth of a program, dedicated entirely–in a well-paced program–to climax, resolution, and tying everything up in a pretty bow. They don’t introduce new complications or plot information. They resolve what was already on the table.

That’s not to say that the previous thirty-something minutes are purely set up. There’s sometimes a few false starts and leads, the A- and B-story weave in and out of each other. Up to that point you know a good chunk, if not all, of the who, what, where, when, why, and how–and it just ties itself into a bow.

What I’m saying here is they don’t solve the entire mystery in the last 7 minutes. They get bits and pieces that all come together there.

“Smile” had a two-part problem.

  • One, it had too many threads fighting for dominance and to be completed, and it didn’t quite work.
  • Two, they spent too much time setting up the concept only to rush (and in my opinion ruin) that setup by rushing the climax and conclusion (with new information).

“Smile” kicks off with the Doctor taking Bill to some point in the future of mankind. They’re on some planet half the universe away where, according to the Doctor, a ship full of humans are on the way to colonize it.

A skeleton crew, with the infamous emoji robots, must have come ahead to set it up but the humans are nowhere to be found. That is, they’re nowhere to be found until the Doctor find their skeletons in a compost bin being turned into fertilizer for the plants.

It turns out, the emoji bots were made to make humans happy and don’t know how to deal with the more negative emotions humans face. Unable to deal with it, the kill the unhappy people to try and keep other people happy. And this city, this supposed future Eden for the human race, is made out of tiny little robots that can leap out of the walls and kill people at a moment’s notice.

The Doctor decides to take the very Ace-like solution and blow the city up and let the humans start over when they arrive. They find the spaceship the crew arrived on, and he heads to the engine to sabotage it into a makeshift bomb. Meanwhile, Bill finds a body of an elderly human woman; a book with fun flashing images is mounted on her slab.

It takes us about a half hour to get to this point.

Using the above time table, we have about 10 minutes of programming left.

All of a sudden out of left field, a little boy shows up, we discover that the humans aren’t on the way–they’re on the ship a la Ark in Space, the robots are apparently a sentient species (apropos of nothing), and that the Doctor doesn’t know what to do with the robots.

Honestly, “Smile” felt like it was a two-part episode that was forced to be one and most of the second part was dropped and crammed into less than 10 minutes of air-time.

If I was editing this script, I would have cut here and waited til next week to finish this story.

That doesn’t happen, hence this blog post.

Upon discovering that there are humans on-board the ship, upset that their people have been killed by the robots, they gather their weapons and chaos ensues.

And it doesn’t make sense.

  • First off, we had no indication there were other humans on the ship before we found out there were.
  • Second, we go from them waking up to a gun show in less than 3 minutes–which is entirely too short of a time.

Another thing to note here: do not throw information out of left field in the middle of your climax, especially without having anything in the story to support it. “Smile” did this and it leaves your reader (or in this case viewer) feeling a bit disjointed.

Even if they don’t see it coming, your audience must have a fair chance to. They appreciate it. They feel as though you’re honoring their intelligence and time, and it adds depth to people who read or watch your work a second time.

Don’t try and justify this by dumping the information in their laps. Leave them a visual clue somewhere, put it in dialogue, make every tool you have work to your favor so when they are done, your audience sits back, looks at your work, and sees how you utilized everything to tell your story.

Aren’t you just sick of hearing the phrase “show don’t tell”?

Well, it applies here.

Show your readers how you’ve come to your climax, and make them see that that’s where you’ve been going to the whole time.

Info-dumps are not only telling, but are a sign that there’s a pacing issue somewhere along the line.

Maybe that information can be hidden somewhere you main character almost overlooks at the beginning of the book. Maybe it’s a passing sentence on page 15, and is actually the key to the whole thing.

Does it come up again? Or does it slap them in the face as you go into the climax and they realize that maybe they should have paid more attention?

You don’t necessarily want to hold your reader’s hands; you want them to think a little. But you have to give them the tools they need to do it.

“Smile” is Bill’s first real adventure. It’s a proper adventure where she’s been invited onto the TARDIS, and not shoved in to hide from something else. To that degree, the Doctor needs to hold her hand a bit.

Then again, he is the Doctor. He has been known to be unaware his companions are actually along for the adventure with him ( cough cough The Time Warrior cough cough).

Back to plot.

Out of nowhere, as the humans shoot emoji bots, the Doctor resets the the robots, treats them as if they are a new sentient species (again, apropos of nothing), and gives them jurisdiction of the planet–making the humans the new species and tells them to all get along because, after all, the robots know all about the city and they don’t.

There are multiple reasons this does not work.

One: The Doctor is always going out of his way to help the humans, and all of a sudden he’s defending robots that spent the episode trying to kill them?

No.

It doesn’t fit the Doctor’s character, thus causing a disconnect between writer and viewer.

Two: there is no indication whatsoever that the robots are sentient before the Doctor decides they are in the last couple minutes of the episode. It is an info-dumped climax item that doesn’t fit. There is no in-story evidence they’re sentient. They exclusively act like ordinary, programmed robots

Three: it morally compromises The Doctor, without ramifications. So, he apparently mind-wiped an entire sentient species? When the previous episode makes mind-wiping out to be an extreme violation of a person, and absolutely, always, morally wrong? (This is even more out of character for the show since Moffat has been taking jabs at RTD for what happened to Donna Noble way back at the end of Series 4).

Not only that, but now there’s an entire chunk of the human population who are now forced to live with robots that the Doctor claims are sentient. They are forced to live with people who killed their friends and families, with no sense of justice?

As a crime writer who spends some time in the heads of people who have dedicated their lives to bringing justice to families, I find that horribly out of place for anyone, especially the Doctor.

This could work if there was a ramification, an acknowledgement and exploration of the fact the Doctor failed. There isn’t one. This is treated like a triumph, when even the last episode tells us otherwise.

Four: the audience does not have the tools to reach or understand this conclusion in the context of the previous 30+ minutes. It’s a narrative and pacing break.

So what does this teach us?

After all, one thing I’ve said multiple times is that I like to study television shows, movies, and books to see if there’s something I can learn.

Set-up is important. Every good story needs it. But you can’t set-up at the expense of your climax and conclusion. These need to be satisfying for your readers, make the story tie itself together in a pretty little bow, and stay true to your characters.

Another thing we learn from “Smile” is that a good story can be ruined by having too many things going on. B-stories are honestly something I struggle with as a writer, Midnight is one of the first times I really attempted to weave one into a story.

For once, “Smile” didn’t annoy me by being a less than stellar episode of the show. Because this time, I was able to look at it and see where it went wrong and apply that my writing.