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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.

The Raconteur Roundtable #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!

The Raconteur Roundtable #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:


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:

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:

If Walls Could Talk: A to B

M.H. Norris

There are those days when James and I go and grab one of the study rooms at the nearby college, the one with the dry erase walls, of course, and I spend a couple of hours mapping out the story on my mind that particular day. I feel like I’ve got it all figured out.

From A to B: by John Bastoen

So then, inspired, I rush home to work on what we mapped out–and then realize I’ve got a problem. I know where A is, and I know where B is, but I don’t know how to connect the two.

Yes, its easy to know where you are and where the story is going to go but knowing how to connect all these dots is rather tricky.

This character comes in here, because you need them for this later on. But when do they come in? How? Do they stand out immediately or does it take time?

In a mystery, you’ve also got the problem of having clues. You might know your climax. (Correction, you might think you know your climax and then your editor takes great pleasure in telling you that you don’t. Or he lets you go about rewriting it three times until he is satisfied. But that’s neither here nor there.)

How do you connect those pieces, those clues? They’re important; they tell your story, and they give your readers a chance to (maybe) figure out who did it before your main character (or you) figure it out.

So what do you do? How do you go from A to B?

That’s a question I ask myself all the time.

One thing to do is, potentially, have some character moments. Especially if you’re like me, and you’re writing the first full-length work in a series, you need to give people a chance to get to know the character they’ll be seeing a lot of over the next few years.

Give them a sense of setting, a sense of back story. Set up the your character and her world.

Why is she there at that time?

What was she doing there?

Or, if your character stays in one place, give us info about it. Towns can give a lot of useful information; maybe something in there, somewhere, will help you to figure out how to get your main character where they need to go.

I’ll admit this: switching gears from a short story to a full length work can be hard. The rules are a bit different when you think about it. 10 thousand word stories do leave room for fluff, 5 thousand does not.

But still they don’t leave nearly as much room as stuff 15 thousand or higher. A full length novel is considered to be works over 50 thousand in some circles.

That’s a lot of words.

My problem is that I often see scenes I’m nowhere near and I don’t want to necessary write immediately (though I have on occasion), because the story could take a different path.


That’s been my struggle this week. It’s an endless struggle to get Rosella from where she is now, to where she needs to be (without the literary equivalent of a contextless jump cut). I did set up her characterization in Midnight, but here she has a chance to shine and show you guys that she’s able to reach those very big dreams she has.

The Raconteur Roundtable #2 – I Love You, Dr. Zaius: Planet of the Apes: Tales from the Forbidden Zone

Jim Beard and Rich Handley join us to talk about their latest collection, Planet of the Apes: Tales from the Forbidden Zone, out now from Titan Books! We discuss Planet of the Apes, swinging 60s sci-fi, TV movie marathons, their careers and creations (Spider-Man! The Lemon Herberts! Back to the Future!), and surprise “announcements” about The Flying Nun and Gidget. What more could you ask for? All this, and the best thing to say in every conversation. Ft. M.H. Norris’ con appearances and cosplay plans!

If Walls Could Talk: Ten Reasons to Listen to The Raconteur Roundtable

M.H. Norris

Did you get a chance to listen to James, Ben, and I on the first episode of the Raconteur Roundtable yesterday?

If not, don’t worry, I’ve got a link for you right here!

And in case you haven’t, here’s 10 reasons to.

1) James keeps a running commentary on my wardrobe

And it annoys me to no end. Make sure you listen each week to hear what color pants I’m wearing. Don’t ask me why it became a thing. It just did.

2) I remind the world what the fox says

So, in my defense, James tricked me into this. You’ll hear it in the second or third episode in the next few weeks because of course that had to be the blooper of the week.

But I wasn’t paying attention to him, rather to the fact that my computer was refusing to play the Kentucky game that day (Go Cats!) and I wanted my game because I was trying to multitask and then he got it on recording.

And a little of me yelling at my computer wanting my game to play.

3) Our Ace talks to the real Ace

Easily one of the most fun things I’ve had the privilege of seeing over the last year is Nicole Petit meet Sophie Aldred. Then, when we managed to secure her on the podcast, both of us were excited.

And honestly, it’s a fantastic interview. We talk about Strangeness in Space & Doctor Who, Sophie gushes about her kids, and we learn a few fun facts that I was surprised to learn about.

But I’m not going to spoil that…

4) Ben designs a unique jingle

I don’t remember how it happened. I don’t remember what started it. All I know is Ben started making up an odd jingle with James’ last name.

And James managed to get most of it recorded. So you hear Ben carrying on, me laughing so hard I can barely breath, and at the end, James can’t help but laugh too.

It’s on the episode that released yesterday.

This also gave birth to my personal favorite part of the new show, the post-show blooper reel..

So, if you listened but didn’t go all the way to the end, you’re missing out.



When we came out with the idea of The Raconteur Roundtable as a title, Ben made some little comment about how our mascot should be a raccoon.

So meet, The Raccoonteur.


6) The show is live and raw

Coming up, there’s an interview in which what would normally be considered a blooper is actually right smack in the middle of the show. We got talking about the Joshua Wanisko’s story and he revealed the secret behind an Easter Egg.

It made me so happy I started to laugh and then cry.

And then, within two minutes (while I was still trying to recover from the above incident) James said something that had me snorting tea out of my nose.

That was a great day in the land of professionalism for M.H. Norris.

7) Fantastic Guests (Whose Books I Saw in a Bookstore Last Tuesday)

We kicked off with John Ainsworth yesterday and he was an absolute delight to work with. But he’s just the beginning.

We’ve got Jim Beard and Rich Handley.

Jim and I have worked on a couple of projects together and I still can’t remember why I didn’t get to come on for his original TVCU episode but I do remembering being bummed. So it was great to talk with him about his newest project Planet of the Apes: Tales From The Forbidden Zone.

Let me tell you, there’s nothing like seeing a book in a bookstore and you know the person who wrote it.

Great feeling.

We’ve got the one and only Sophie Aldred, We’re going to be talking with Andrew Cartmel down the road. Have you read his mystery “The Viynl Dectective”? The sequel comes out next month and I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy.

8) Outtakes

The single greatest bonus feature any show can have.

It’s now become a challenge to see who can accidentally create the best outtake for the end of show one. There have been times one has happened and we’ve all been like “that’s the one.”

Other times, we have plenty of options.

Enjoy making fun of us but don’t feel bad because we’ve made fun of us too.

9) You never know what state we’re all in

Here’s your Raconteur Roundtable fun fact (well one of many since I’ve been telling some of our secrets in this post). We have yet to record an entire episode while all being in the same place.

With Sophie, for example, Nicole comes on to guest host and we were in four different states with Sophie being in another country.

Someday, we’ll record together. Though I’m not sure we will know what to do when that happens.

10) Fun discussions each episode

We’ve added a new segment to the episodes. Now you get a fun discussion segment where we discuss something for 10 minutes or so.

Next week’s discussion is fun. I gush about something and I’m sure the discussion will come up again some other time.

But week to week, we’ll cover various things that may or may not be related to the interview in the episode itself.

So you never know what you’re going to get when you tune in week to week.

We look forward to seeing you at the Roundtable.

Literary Archaeology: Play Me a Memory – Using Music in Historical Fiction

Jon Black

I’m at South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin this week. Over five days, more than 2,200 bands from 67 countries are performing in 60-ish venues scattered around downtown. With numbers that large, if you can think of type of music, it’s here somewhere (yesterday, I saw a ska band from Tokyo).

This means two things. First, I forgot I had write this post until 5 a.m. Wednesday morning. Second, music is very much on my mind this week. Taken in tandem, they’ve catalyzed reflection of what a potent but criminally under-utilized tool music is for writing historical fiction and historical fiction.

Pre-Historic Flute Bone

Universal Language

Music is ubiquitous across cultures and dates to far earlier than was suspected until recently. Flutes made from bird bones and ivory found in Germany have been dated to 40,000 years ago. The Chinese were using turtle shell rattles as far back 4,000 BC. Silver pipes from 2,500 BC turn up in a grave in Ur. Mesopotamians also gave us the oldest surviving musical notation (albeit imprecise by today’s standards) from a clay tabled found in Nippur. A second tablet, dating from 1250 BC, already shows significant advances from the first. And the Cycladic culture of ancient was celebrating musicians in their painting and poetry, including graceful elaborate statues of musicians playing both Cycladic culture of Ancient Greece, include double-lutes and harps.

First, a confession. I love music. I really love music. I spent the better part of a decade working primarily as a music journalist/music historian. And that comes through in writing. Two of my works accepted for publication are music driven.  In “Gabriel’s Trumpet,” my upcoming novel from 18thWall Publications, a musician serves as the stories MacGuffin. In “So Lonesome I Could Die,” my upcoming short story from Darkhouse Books, the ill-fated protagonist is a musician. I also have a story I’ve been shopping around in which a music journalist comes to be a very bad end.

But, even if you don’t have my level of passion, there is much to recommend referencing music in Historical Fiction or Historical Fantasy. Many HistFic writers, despite our best efforts, often emphasize the sights of the past to the detriment of information provided by the other senses (excluding the now obligatory passage about how bad the past smelled). Music is a great way to insert the sounds of the past.

Referencing the sounds of Wagner, the Doors, or medieval troubadours immediately provides expositive shorthand regarding location and setting. When well chosen, it also helps build mood and atmosphere. Because sound is such a visceral sense and people often have very personal and intimate reactions to music, it is a great way to make readers feel like they’re right there in the story.


Video Killed the Radio Star

If you’re writing at the end of the 19th century or after, don’t forget the possibilities of recording, playback, and broadcast technologies. Consider the following sentences:

“After cranking the Victrola, she delicately set a phonograph record on the platter,”

“Jamming a cassette in the car’s 8-track player, he slammed his foot on the accelerator”

“Flipping through her phone, she wanting to share the album she’d downloaded just hours ago.”

Each of those is a single sentence that suggests an entire scene … in an unmistakable time period. Indeed, it’s not hard to go from there to characters and motivation.

STEAL THIS PLOT TWIST:  Speaking of recording technology, if you’re looking for an unusual way to challenge your protagonists, stick critical information on some obscure pre-phonograph  recording medium (cylinder, wire recorders, etc.). Now, send them scrambling to find a way to play it.

Phonographic Cylinder Player

Broadcasting technologies are very useful tools for writing. This is especially true of radio, which contains ads (in some countries, anyway) and news between songs. Such news breaks can establish the era or setting of a piece (a news story about the eruption of Mt. St. Helens), provide color (don’t forget the annual Strawberry Days festival this weekend, come on down and see the crowning of the Strawberry Queen), or advancing the plot (a hook-handed killer has just escaped the nearby institute for the criminally cliché).

Papa was a Rolling Stone

Music and musicians don’t have to be just background, color, or exposition, they can actually be part of the narrative.  At the end of the day, you don’t have to have a reason to stick a musician in your story. Archetypal musicians are colorful, larger than life, get away with flouting social conventions, and have interesting backstories. In other words, they are precisely the kind of characters that most authors like to write.

However, if that’s not enough, musicians have multiple narrative uses.

While generally considered somewhat disrespectable themselves, musicians come into contact and interact with people from all classes and walks and life. That makes them a great vehicle for providing information that protagonists might otherwise have difficulty accessing. That musicians often travel widely offers similar benefits.

And, while it’s a cliché, musicians are often portrayed with unusual (frequently shady) backgrounds.  It is easier to believe that a down on his jazz player knows how to hotwire a car than an accountant. Or that the grizzled of Meistersinger knows the paths through the mountains out of Hapsburg lands than a peasant.

In short, because of the enduring and portable archetypes we associate with them, the romantic and liminal musician can be played as something of a wildcard.

Woodstock (Dereck Redmon and Paul Campbell)