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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.

If Walls Could Talk: Writing Aspirations

M.H. Norris

I think, to an extent, authors start writing with a certain bit of disillusionment when it comes to this field we are in love with.  Even I have seemed to fall prey to that even though I knew that it takes several years to get established in the field.

Lately, I’ve felt like it’s hard being the jack-of-many-trades that your favorite mystery maven and sci-fi sorceress has found herself being. Not that I don’t love doing it all. I just wonder how I seem to do it all.

If walls could talk, they would wonder how I seemed to be able multi-task so much better than I do these days.

‘Cause, I don’t know.

That and a case of writer’s block.

And it’s not that I’m not writing. It’s that I haven’t been writing the first Rosella novel. Columns, podcast prep, forewords, writer’s notes, and acknowledgements are taking up my processor’s time.

How do people do it all? Write, manage multiple projects, and hold a day job. I don’t understand sometimes how people seem to juggle it all.

And I feel like I used to do it better than these days.

I even try to put things on certain days. Work on this this day (for example, I almost always write this column on Tuesdays, and it goes up the next day) and work on that another day. The Time Travel Nexus’ “Television Tuesday” usually gets done on Monday (though that’s more of a I want to get as up to date news as possible).

When I wrote Badge City: Notches, I did it during a semester and that was on top of going to school full time, a part time job, the first version of this column—and all the research and everything else that comes along with writing a novel. It’s like the climax of that story, I don’t know how I managed it.

That’s been my writing issue of the week, or rather the last few weeks. Managing to do everything like I used to.

And figuring out how people seem to do it these days.

It’s not that I’m complaining and I’m not going to drop a project (after all, there’s reasons I picked them all up). It’s more I’ve got to figure out how I can do it all and still have time to tell my own stories.

Cause after all, isn’t that why I started writing in the first place?

I’ve been writing short stories for years now. More or less since I realized that books were made by forming a bunch of sentences together to make them. It would be college before I realized that maybe this hobby of mine would become more than a hobby.

At first I thought I’d be like JK Rowling or Stephanie Meyer, and have a bestseller out of the gate.

Then, I realized that it would take time.

How much time?

There’s no straight answer for that.

I’ve heard people talk about how if you are in this business for the money, you’re in it for the wrong reasons. But, one can’t help but dream of a day where you can support yourself on nothing but writing.

My first short story came out about four and a half years ago. Now, I have four short stories out, two books, another short story on the way, and All the Petty Myths is out soon. Then Rosella makes her full-length debut.

Is it wrong to have aspirations when it comes to writing?

This is one of my deeper “If Walls Could Talk” and I’ve spent a fair bit of time thinking about what it takes to make it in this business.

The only way someone makes it in this business is if they are willing to spend years dedicated to this craft. It requires a lot of time dedicated to writing for it to happen.

Stephen King says he writes every day, and in On Writing he suggests writers do the same. I’ll be honest, I don’t write every single day.

And what did he mean by that. Did he mean, if you are a fiction writer you need to write in your book every day?

What about columns and podcast prep and notes on research?

Becoming successful in this business means you have to be ready and willing to spend hours and weeks and months and even years working doing this and that to get your name out there. It involves times where you wonder if you’ll ever make it work.

I’m still in that stage.

My writing aspirations haven’t been met yet.

But I’ll get there someday.

RR #5 – Justice League on the Playground – JL8 with Yale Stewart

In one of our most in-depth interviews yet, Ben Kasson and Yale Stewart settle in for an intimate conversation about his thoughts on the comic industry as a whole, the indie comics sphere, webcomics, his inspirations, and his work–including a lengthy look at JL8, and discussion of his work for DC Comics, Dynamite, and other publishers. They talk about his surprising team-up, of sorts, with Neil Gaiman, and his storytelling philosophy.  All this, and a happened-to-be-recorded conversation between Nicole Petit, Ben, and James about how little logical sense J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek makes. (A nearly M.H. Norris-free episode.)

Literary Archaeology: It’s Writing Cats and Dogs

Jon Black

They loved their owners very much

The use of domesticated animals is nearly universal across human culture. Nevertheless, the specific uses of such animals, preferences regarding species and breed, and attitudes toward such animals shift across time and place. As such, they can be a wonderful part of the background in HistFic. No domesticated animals are more useful for writers, and more interesting to readers, than those that blur that line between work animals and companions: cats and dogs. Even when treated realistically, these creatures can very nearly become characters in their own right. As pets, they provide a goldmine of opportunities to convey information about their owners. The kind of animal chosen as a pet, what it is named, and how it is treated say a great deal about a character.

This week’s column looks at those two delightful species. It examines the where, when, and how of their domestication as well as offering a few fun facts which might prove useful or inspirational to HisFic writers. Obviously, it doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of what could be said about cats and dogs…so this may turn out to be first in a periodic series of articles.

To head off any angry feedback from either the dog-people or cat-people, I’ve presented them alphabetical order.

CATS (Felis catus)

Origins: Evolved from the near-eastern Wildcat (Felis sylvestris lybica). The earliest confirmed archeological evidence for domesticated cats dates from 9,500 years ago in Cyprus. Genetic evidence suggests slightly older origins, around 10,000 years ago in Middle East. Interestingly, there is evidence that the Leopard Cat (Prionailurus bengalensis, closely related to the Wildcat but, its name notwithstanding, not the leopard) was undergoing the process of domestication in China by 7,500 years ago (and possibly as early as 10,000 years ago) but, for whatever reason, the process was never completed and no semi-domesticated populations survive today.

How the Relationship Started: The initial interaction of humans and cats likely began when after the former started engaging in systematic agriculture that produced significant surplus. The humans’ stored grains and seeds attracted rodents which, in turn, attracted the ancestors of domesticated cats. A symbiotic relationship developed, with the cats benefiting from plentiful food and the humans benefitting from reduced grain loss as well as, although they didn’t know it, reduced their susceptibility to rodent-borne pathogens.

Everybody Loves a Cat Lady

In popular culture, “cat lady” has evolved from a term disparagement to one that is often a self-proclaimed badge of honor. While the term is of relatively recent vintage, the archetype itself is not; although, there seems to be no academic consensus on when it first emerged. Certainly, it was alive and well by the Victorian era, when multiple cat ownership and spinsterhood were already linked. (Fun Fact: Florence Nightingale was a real-life a cat lady, owning as many as 60 felines throughout her life, most of them named after popular political figures of the day).

Cardinal Richelieu, one of history’s great “Cat Ladies.” (Image credit: Detroit Institute of Arts via The History Blog)

Other alleged historical Cat Ladies include Louisa May Alcott, Clara Barton, all three Bronte sisters, Vivian Leigh, and Harriet Beecher Stowe (It would appear that something about authors and nurses overlaps with cat fancying). If one takes a non-sex/gender specific approach to the term then Cardinal Richelieu, Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, and Ernest Hemmingway must be added to the ranks of Cat Ladies. Catherine the Great was another famous Cat Lady…look for the descendants of her pets to appear in one of my upcoming stories.

A Plague on Both Your Mouses

For centuries, cats had an ambivalent relationship with organized religion. This goes at least as far back as the Black Death, when priests often labeled cats as argents of darkness who brought plague. It was an ironic conclusion. Rather than causing plague, by feeding on rodents that carried plague flees, cats were one on the medieval world’s only effective anti-plague measures. In 1486, the Malleus Maleficarum, the church’s handbook for witch hunting, identified cat ownership as possible evidence of witchiness. Today, things appear more amicable. The gentle Gertrude of Nivelles is the patron saint of both cats and cat lovers.

Feline Hall of Fame: Unsinkable Sam

Unsinkable Sam served as ship’s cat on three separate ships that were torpedoed during WWII, surviving each time and living out the rest of his long life on land. Sam, however was something of a turncoat. He began his career on the German battleship Bismark, after being plucked from the water by crewmen from the HMS Cossack, he spent the remainder of his military career with the Royal Navy.

Unsinkable Sam on patrol

DOGS (Canis Lupus Familiaris)

Roman State of Hounds

Origins: Domesticated from the Gray Wolf (Canis Lupis), there are two differing hypothesis regarding the time and place. The first is in Europe, at least 15,000 years ago (and possibly as far back as 36,000 years ago). The second is Central Asia or Western China 12,500 years ago. Recently, it has been suggested that both may be correct and the domestication process may have occurred independently twice. Even the latest date would make the dog the first species domesticated by humans and, notably, predates the practice of agriculture and occurred back when all humans were hunter-gatherers.

How the Relationship Started: There are multiple non-exclusive theories behind the domestication of wolves into dogs. Opportunistic wolves may have found scavenging human trash made an easier meal than hunting and begun following the strange bipeds around. While humans may have experienced some benefit from the wolves consuming their rubbish (though not as much as sedentary humans later would), their primary benefit may have been the animals’ superior senses…serving as an alarm system for the approach of wild animals or other groups of humans.

Hunting likely played a significant role as well, though whether this occurred concurrently with or after other factors is debated. As social, group-oriented species, the hunting styles of humans and wolves were highly compatible. Though too long to go into here, there is a fascinating body of research regarding behaviors and communications that may have jumped between the two species early in the relationship.

Packed Animal

Before the arrival of the horse, outside of the Andes (with its llama) the dog was the only draft animal in the New World. A healthy dog can carry approximately one-quarter of its own weight for sustained periods. Dogs selectively bread for such purposes can carry about one-third of their weight. Using a travois (a simple drag-sled constructed from three wooden poles) pushes that half or even two-thirds of its weight, while introducing terrain limitations. Dogs in a snow sled team can pull one-and-a-half to two times their combined weight.

Bark Like An Egyptian

While often overshadowed by their veneration of cats as symbols of the goddess Bast, the ancient Egyptians were extraordinarily fond of dogs. They could be found as household pets of everyone from peasants to pharaohs and were used for hunting, guarding, and even military purposes.

Fido, J’Accuse!

While not receiving quite so much ecclesiastical condemnation as cats, dogs have faced their share of trouble with religious officials and accusations of being in league with dark forces. The list of individuals accused during the Salem Witch Trials included two dogs. Conversely, dogs were sometimes used to ferret (see what I did there?) out alleged witches. Regional folklore in Britain features many examples of black dogs with red eyes (sometimes spectral, sometimes tangible) that are often viewed as fiendish or, at the very least, uncanny.

If Walls Could Talk: Learning from Sarah Jane Smith

M.H. Norris

Britbox has become my new best friend. For some reason, the one place in town that sells copies of Classic Doctor Who has randomly decided not to stock anything Sarah Jane since Christmas and my Amazon budget is only but so much.

But now, I have it all.

In celebration, James, Nicole, and I got together to watch some classic Doctor Who. And since I’d had a rather bad day, I got to pick.

Actually, it’s thanks to Nick Briggs that we ended up picking Death to the Daleks, to watch that afternoon (Stop, Don’t Move–for fans from his podcast). Later I watched K-9 and Company, which was as special as I’d been led to believe.

Where am I going with this?

Actually, I have a bit more foundation to lay before I get to my point. But I do have one.

The first time I met my favorite fictional character, Sarah Jane Smith, was in the tenth Doctor episode “School Reunion.” There’s several ways to watch that episode; and as I’ve noted before, this was something David Tennant noticed in the commentary. He said, depending on how much Doctor Who you watched beforehand, you could see it one of two ways. You could see it as Rose (who sees a friend of the Doctor’s who he’s never mentioned; but this friend is still clearly thinking about him). What does that mean for Rose in the future?

Or, you could see it as the Doctor. He’s seeing an old friend, one that Tennant refers to as “The Doctor’s True Companion” in the forward to Elizabeth Sladen’s autobiography.

I’d argue there’s a third way to watch it; and when I go and revisit my introduction to Sarah Jane Smith, I see it that way.

I see it through Sarah Jane’s eyes. She’s had a time of it lately. Big Finish fills in a little of what she’s been through in the last decade alone and then there’s around 30 years where we only see bits and pieces.

There’s a line that didn’t phase me the first time and then later on would come to annoy me. She sees the Doctor, discovers it’s actually him, and then says that she thought he had died.

It annoyed me because Sarah Jane has quite a few documented cases of meeting the Doctor throughout canon, after leaving him The Hand of Fear. So why did she forget it?

She didn’t.

Like most people. Sarah Jane Smith grows up and changes but there’s traits that stay with her throughout her lifetime.

And this isn’t the first time I’ve mentioned her here, and you all know how I mention her without cause on The Raconteur Roundtable. She’s a character I’ve spent time learning about, but I love how still I learn new things about her.

Characters have levels to them and they change as the character experiences various things. And Sarah Jane is no different.

When Sarah Jane travelled with The Doctor back in the 70s, she was extremely melodramatic. And sometimes, I honestly think she did it for the sake of doing it. At times, it causes me to raise my eyebrow in her general direction; other times I find it incredibly amusing.

But relating it back to “School Reunion”–suddenly that line makes so much more sense. She’s being melodramatic to a Doctor who has a tendency to be a bit melodramatic himself.

One thing I’ve talked a bit about is how I’m working on a series based around Dr. Rosella Tassoni. I’ve contemplated before writing more books on a character but with her, the intention was that I write a character that can support a series.

And that is a bit different of a mindset because she has to grow and change and things are going to happen to her, things I don’t know yet because I haven’t planned quite that far ahead.

Her start is in Midnight, in the All the Petty Myths anthology, which be out soon.

And, like Sarah Jane, I’ll be down the road with her and still see these odd quirks that carry over from her first appearance at Midnight.

Because keep in mind, characters are people and we change. Sometimes I cringe looking back at the antics of my younger self and other times I wonder if my younger self would recognize me if I wandered past her.

Sarah Jane taught me that maybe. Because there are some things we never truly outgrow. Maybe we mellow out a bit (Sarah Jane did become quite a bit less melodramatic as the years went on).

I mentioned ages ago that it’s useful to take your favorite fictional characters and see what you can learn from them. Luckily for me, it seems that Sarah Jane may have more lessons to teach me.

RR #4 – Sophie Aldred – Ace of Strangeness in Space

Sophie Aldred, Doctor Who’s Ace McShane herself, visits the Roundtable to talk about her new, award-winning comedy podcast Strangeness in Space. We also talk about Doctor Who, her sons’ roles in Tree Fu Tom and Now You See Me 2, Big Finish Productions, Ace’s characterization and history, her role as an ancient vampire (on Cops and Monsters), Mel’s return to the TARDIS, and an extended discussion on Batman earrings, Ace’s jacket and badges, and that famous skintight costume. All this, and pervo-shine!

RR #3 – The Delia Derbyshire Appreciation Society (Kara Blake & Tina DeLucia)

After a very silly discussion about who the next Doctor should be (Ryan Reynolds! Ryan Gosling & Emma Stone!), the gang talks to award-winning documentarian Kara Blake about Delia Derbyshire, the composer behind the Doctor Who theme. Philtre Films, the Radiophonic Workshop, Delia’s career and legacy, The Delian Mode, Tune in 1949, Derby and Groma’s surprise real-world conclusion, Pam Pam, difficult art, and MH’s geographic know-how are all topics of discussion. Then Ben and James check-in with Tina DeLucia, B&W Who expert, for more information on Delia Derbyshire and the missing middle eight. All this, worth much more than a thousand dollars a second.

Literary Archaeology: Books within Books

Jon Black

The forgotten tome, bound in cracked leather, creaks as the protagonist opens it. Along with the musty smell issuing from its ancients pages comes a crucial clue or essential exposition.

It is a cliché of genre fiction, and for damn good reason. It’s not just a matter of books being a good, plausible vehicle for exposition. Most readers are, at heart, also bibliophiles. We love not only good stories in books but good stories about books.

With that in mind, inventing books to deliver exposition and advance the plot is a time-honored tradition. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon is the superlative example. He, his antecedents, and protégées are the ultimate practitioners of this art, giving us dozens of such fictional books. The best, like the Necronomicon, Howard’s Unaussprechlichen Kulten, and Chambers’ The King in Yellow have arguably become characters in their own right, with rich backstories and distinctive “personalities.”

There is absolutely nothing wrong with inserting an invented book into a story. But HistFic writers have another option, one perhaps more felicitous to their craft: coopting actual historical books into their narrative. Lovecraft and other Mythos authors coopted a number of actual books for their stories—twisting them or inserting content that furthered their narratives. Great for HistFic, such books also work marvelously for contemporary stories with a historical research component.

History’s bookshelf is full of intriguing options. Originally, I intended to profile five such works in this post; including authorships and publication information, summaries, suggestions for their use in HistFic, and links to their text online. In order to do justice to each book, I realized I needed to curtail that to three books (conveniently, giving me material for a series of these posts).

For the inaugural post in this series, I focus on two historical books that have seen extensive use in fiction, The Golden Bough and The Witch Cult in Western Europe, as well as one that, to my knowledge, has not: Pantographia.

The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion     

Author: Sir James Frazer (1854-1941), a pioneering anthropologist from Glasgow who lectured at the UK’s most prestigious universities throughout his career.

Publication: 1890 (original two-volume edition), 1900 (expanded three-volume edition), 1906-1915 (comprehensive twelve-volume edition).

Summary: One of the foundational texts of anthropology, the Golden Bough is a treasure trove containing thousands of examples of beliefs, rites, and rituals from around the world. While Europe is overrepresented in Golden Bough, Frazer grabs examples cover the globe.

Highlighting commonalities between these examples, Frazer argued for the existence of a number of meta-myths (the Killing of the Divine King, the Corn Maiden, etc.) common in pre-modern societies. In some ways, the Golden Bough anticipates the work of Jung and Campbell. But there are significant differences.  Jung and Campbell saw the universality of myth as testimony to its value for the human psyche and human experience. Frazer, in contrast, sought to use Golden Bough to build a case for the unilateral progression of human societies from magical belief through religion to scientific rationalism; by extension demystifying the first two stages and defining them solely as inferior, pre-scientific attempts to understand, and control, the world.

Frazer’s ideas have since fallen from favor. Most modern anthropologists would disagree with the Golden Bough’s axioms that magic, religion, are science are mutually incompatible systems of meaning and that the only functions of magic and religion are to understand and control the material world. Nevertheless, it is still respected as one of the earliest attempts to write scientifically and systematically on the topics. Frazer’s work also has long legs in art and literature. Far from being confined to Mythos writers, artists from T.S. Eliot to Jim Morrison explicitly referenced The Golden Bough as an influence of their art.

TANGENT ALERT: I adore Frazer and his Golden Bough. The rascally and curmudeonly scholar, as well as his gloriously opaque academic prose, were a major inspiration for the character of Herbert Price in the “Bel Nemeton” series.

Possible Uses in HistFic: The greatest value of Golden Bough for HistFic is the enormous volume of examples contained within its pages. Authors can insert an example that advances their plot, either through armchair research by protagonists or as something they must actively investigate. Of course, Golden Bough is so packed with examples that the process can be reversed: picking an appropriate actual example from its pages to be worked into the narrative.

Text Online: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/3623

Pantographia

Author: Edmund Fry (1754-1833), an English craftsmen and scholar who was one of the most influential and knowledgeable type-founders of his time.

Publication: 1799.

The product of 16 years, Pantographia is a visually stunning compilation of all alphabets and typefaces in the world that would have been known to an educated Englishman at the close of the 18th century. It also includes samples of languages and dialects as well as, in some cases, very basic lexicons.

Pantographia follows a consistent format: an alphabet or typeface is presented on the left-hand page, while the right-hand provides Fry’s description and commentary. While the typefaces (such as the now obscure “Bastard” font popular in 14th and 15th century French printing) are interesting, HistFic writers will probably gravitate toward esoteric alphabets such as Chaldean, Armenian, Balinese, Coptic, Dalmatian, Egyptian Demotic, and Samaritan. Among the most unusual is “Philosophic,” a script designed by the 17th century Bishop Wilkins as one of the first efforts toward a universal language).

Excerpts from endangered or extinct dialects and languages, such as the Berryan dialect of French and Carnish (which may be Wendish or something like it) and a preserved excerpt of Vandal are also exciting. Some of Fry’s samples are deliberately archaic, such as a transcription of Portuguese that was already 200 years old at the time of Pantographia’s publication.

TANGENT WARNING: Pantographia is an endless, if delightful, rabbit hole. The typefaces and scripts are often gorgeous to look at. Understanding the work sometimes requires decoding more than two centuries of geographical changes and understanding of the world. Sometimes, a little research and puzzle-solving is necessary just to figure out what the hell Fry is talking about. To cite just a few examples: What is the “New England” language? Presumably some Algonquin or Iroquoian tongue, but which one? Ditto “Esquimaux,” is obviously an Inuit language, but which? By “Mexican” does he mean Nahuatl? What is the “Saracen” alphabet? It is presented separately from Arabic, to which its script only roughly correlates. Perhaps some form of Berber? And then there is “Sclavonian.” Fry’s description clearly indicates he considers it a significant language with which his readers would be familiar. I think he may be talking about Serbo-Croatian. But a separate entry for “Servian” renders even that hypothesis less likely.

Possible HistFic Uses: Fry’s preservation of scripts, dialects, and lexicons which were obscure even in 1799 provides means for translating ancient inscriptions or cracking esoteric cyphers. Pantographia’s contents are already so bizarre that inserting Atlantian, Enochian, or Pnakotic hardly seems to make a difference. Also, prior to the internet, unlike Golden Bough or Witch Cult, Pantographia was a truly obscure text with only a few copies known to exist – just finding one could represent a plot point in itself.

Text Online: https://archive.org/details/pantographiacont00fryeiala/

The Witch-Cult in Western Europe

Author: Margret Murray (1863-1963) an Indian-born British anthropologist and archeology who conducted research in European folklore as well as ground-breaking (hah!) excavations in Egypt, Malta, and elsewhere.

Publication: 1921

This book first articulates what has become known as the “Witch-Cult Hypothesis,” arguing that “witches” and “witchcraft” as understood by post-Medieval Europe were actually remnants of a continent-wide pre-Christian nature/fertility religion.

Witch-Cult used examples from European folklore as well as evidence and transcripts gathered during witch trials both to support its hypothesis and identify the salient characteristics of the putative ancient faith.

As with Frazer’s work, Murray’s “Witch-Cult” hypothesis has fallen into disfavor. It presumes a cultural homogeneity in pre-Christian Europe that does not appear to have existed. Murray, like Frazer, removes examples from cultural context which may distort their meaning. And using evidence from witch trials, often gained under what could charitably called “coercion,” is fraught with peril. Nevertheless, as with Golden Bough, it remains an influential text that was one the first of its kind.

Possible HistFic Uses: Just because the Witch-Cult hypothesis appears to have been untrue in our world, doesn’t mean it has to be so in a story. Even if it is, that does not preclude one of its folklore examples or excerpts from a witch trial confessions (one actually in the book or inserted by a HistFic author) from being true within the story and providing vital information.

Text Online: https://archive.org/details/witchcultinweste00murr