Not to mention the rest of yesterday’s search history:

  • stereotypes of turkish moms
  • duck emoji
  • human trafficking
  • easter 2020
  • cat asthma attack
  • gold teeth caps
  • gold teeth cap history
  • what causes broken teeth
  • history seeling teeth
  • history selling teeth
  • starvation
  • history common diseases associated with starvation
  • measles
  • pneumonia
  • cat wheezing and swallowing
  • pneumonia historical treatments
  • tooth infection
  • what happens if you ignore a tooth abscess
  • historical sinus infection
  • did old boarding schools have nurses
  • boarding schools hospital wings
  • cupping
  • total color blindness
  • cone monochromacy
  • cerebral achromatopsia
  • is cone monochromacy genetic -blue
  • france

Well, well, well, Mr. Bond. Someone’s main character is in big trouble.

For the record, I was almost in bed by 11 p.m. last night. But then I figured I’d better prep a blog post instead real quick before my thoughts faded and badabingbadaboom it was 12:58 a.m.

Barbarians, Castles, and (naturally) the History of the Toilet

I spent about six hours today reading up on British history, only to realize that I should have been researching central Europe. I’m working on a fairy-tale-based series of short stories (and novellas because this is me we’re talking about), and the longer it sits in my head the more I realize that I want it to vaguely follow history. While I do have another series idea that’s just retellings of fairy tales in a different world, this one instead takes elements of fairy tales – magic, curses, trolls, elves, witches, and other elements of Grimm folklore – and applies them to real time periods.

This wasn’t the plan when I woke up this morning. I’d decided that that all sounded like too much work and/or a good excuse to never get around to writing the series, so I was just going to go with the Brother Grimm style of setting, where you have a basic idea of time period but you apply whatever historical and or made-up details as they pleaseth you. And then the six hours happened. All because I asked Google “when did castles and kingdoms start to be a thing.”

But really, I just can’t let go of the idea of eventually writing a story that takes place between the industrial revolution and WWI, in which part of the debate of the age is whether science has surpassed magic. But I want to start off earlier in history with castles and princesses, so of course I had to look up when castles were a thing, and discovered they were later than I thought and also power was too centralized for the stories I have in mind.

(Of course I forgot that die Brüders Grimm were German folklorists and so their collection is naturally predisposed to the more scattered nature of power in Central Europe. But that’ll be tomorrow’s  research.)

The search started and then six hours later ended in the Primary Homework Help website, a collection of 90s-esque web pages of historical facts collected and written by a teacher for British elementary/middle school children. Naturally, I fit right in. But seriously, because it’s written for kids, she summarizes 2,000 years of British history (sometimes I forget how old the rest of the world is) in an easy-to-pick-up manner. Who were the Celts? What did they eat? What did they wear? What weapons did they use? And all the violent stuff is brilliant: “They beheaded their enemies and stuck them on spikes outside their gates!” she writes with an enthusiastic exclamation point because, let’s be honest, anyone on this site is going to be more excited by the death toll than anything.

Anyways, it’s the everyday stuff that I need. In every single age, insane stuff has been happening, but most of us are just plebes living our lives while the battles rage elsewhere, only occasionally sweeping through to cut multiple branches off our family tree. I’m not going to write this series around major historical events. I just want to make sure I understand the general political landscape going on behind the scenes, that I describe their houses correctly, that I don’t have them digging latrines when they should be pooping into the moats (looking at you 11th /12th centuries), that I know when kids started going to school, and that they’re eating the proper food and getting married at the right times.

[That said, my goal is to stay out of the weeds. I’ll look as far as I need to and wave the hand of imagination over the rest. There’s no point in 100% accuracy because it’s impossible in English. So much of culture is wrapped into language; I already know I’m going to be using idioms and phrases that didn’t show up until the 19th or 20th centuries because it’s more important that your readers understand a character/setting/plot point (and the feelings attached to them) than it is to be 100% accurate to the details. In Old English the sea was called a swan road (swan-rad), a spider was a gangelwaefre (walking weaver), and your body was a ban-cofan. Bone cave. This stuff thrills me to no end, but there’s no time for the linguistics lesson in your story, unless that’s the point of it.]*

With that aside aside, let’s talk about the fact that the Romans conquered Britain, built the settlement Londinium (you can still find Roman structures in London), introduced flushing toilets, central heat, heated floors, built a 73-mile wall across the UK to keep the Scottish out, and then left in 410 AD to protect borders closer to home. The Angles and Saxons rolled in and just stomped the Britons, because the natives had no professional soldiers of their own, Rome having kept the doors locked and guarded for the previous 350 years. The Saxons didn’t bother raiding as they had in the past, just attacked, burned out who they wanted like cockroaches, and settled in.

What’s fascinating is that the Romans, though they were there for nearly 400 years, hadn’t really bothered with roots. They inserted Latin into the language and introduced the Roman calendar, their legal system, and coins, but when they left the culture went with them. Their economic system broke down within 40 years. By 450, the Britons were back to trading goods, having punched holes in their coins to wear as jewelry. By then only squatters remained in London and pretty much every other Roman town and villa had been abandoned. Goodbye, too, Christianity. Welcome back paganism.

From a different site: “The loss of Christianity in this part of what had once been the Roman Empire is very bad for historians because with the disappearance of Christianity goes the disappearance of literacy as well, and the disappearance of written records. What we know about Anglo-Saxon England and this period is derived almost entirely either from archaeology or from accounts written after Christianity is reintroduced, and often dating hundreds of years from the events they purport to describe, or from Celtic authors living in Scotland or, perhaps, Ireland who were somewhat removed in time and space from Anglo-Saxon England.”

And that, as I understand it, is why they’re called the Dark Ages. Talk about a dystopian collapse. The entire country just dissolved into darkness. What happened? Who knows! Maybe some Irish bloke a hundred years later can tell us.

From there I read over another 1,030 years of history before I quit, which was long enough to realize that I want the chaos of the multiple kingdoms from the dystopian age of the Anglo-Saxon takeover but also the aesthetic of castles, which, in England, came about 600 years too late to the game. William the Conqueror introduced those at the same time he introduced the feudal system (oh yeah, and England became a French-speaking country for 300 years), making him head honcho by renting out all the land to his nobles in exchange for soldiers whenever he needed them, rather than operating as autonomous kingdoms allied with one another.

I’m pretty sure ye olde German barbarians – those tribal, pagan Anglo-Saxons who collapsed Britannia into the Dark Ages – have got my back on this one. With fingers crossed that I stay out of Eastern Europe. I think that’ll keep me clear of the Huns.

*Admittedly, “Bone Cave” is probably going to be the name of one of my stories someday. Or my band. Or used in the sentence: “Don’t believe that myth about the seven gangelwaefres and your ban-cofan, which are swallowed before uht**.”

**Uht = the time of day just before dawn when the last few stars are still out and the mist hangs heavy over the fields and lakes.

The Wrap-Up

Note, read after you’ve read On the Corner of Pine and Meyer. Otherwise: spoilers.

My latest novella has been an interesting project, and a definite learning experience; also, not my favorite work. The original draft for this story is so old that there were double spaces after each period. I swear I like humor, but most of the ideas I’ve posted and written to this site were cooked up in college when I felt melodramatically drawn to take-all-this-very-seriously. If I wrote this story now I’d probably just straight up start with the house talking and changing things, not only because those are the interesting bits and you may as well lead with your strongest foot, but also because watching a man verbally war his own house while it keeps interrupting his work on the laptop he had the misfortune to plug into the wall could be hilarious if handled right. Eventually I’d work in the creep/menace factor for some added thrills, before cleaning it all up at the end with a smile and a bow.

I’d also probably give him more kids and/or a not-dead wife because I’m tired of repeating the same pattern of single parent, two kids. All three of my longest stories on this site (this one, “Small Town Super Nobody,” and “Ten Seconds to Now”) use it. Which is an affront to my annoyance with modern fiction. There aren’t enough fics in this world—at least not written recently—with happy, whole families. I’ve still got a heavy majority of orphans and lonely protagonists with tragic back stories clogging up my Word drive, but at least now the one-shot folder is neatly bisected by a story that features an annoyed mom telling her three kids to knock it off while the man of the house makes groan-worthy dad-jokes in the other room, and book-ended by another about the luckiest family on earth. Both were additions to the folder in 2018.

But I didn’t come up with Pine&Meyer last year, I wrote the second draft nine years ago as the final project for a creative writing course (adding about 15,000 words to the original draft, which I’ll see if I can track down) in my last semester as an undergrad, and I’ve been working with what I got. Some extra lessons:

  1. The delete button is your friend. Just because it can be a novella doesn’t mean it should be a novella; and
  2. Never start posting a story you haven’t finished writing.

I’ve said the second before, but it bears repeating.

You may even hear it again someday.

(Oh: and I’m back to work on more promising projects. I won’t tell you which one yet, but I started to work on it over my lunch break instead of watch YouTube videos just because I was excited to get to work on it, and that’s got to be a sign of something promising. I’ll see about reporting actual word counts again once I move out of the planning stage.)

The Way Around

Today’s word count report should list my current work-in-progress as “Pine & Meyer,” but it does not. Instead, today’s working title is for another half-baked short story (definitely on its way to becoming another novella), because coming up with ideas and vomiting them out onto a page is my favorite part of the process. I’ll start up again on my dreadfully neglected schizophrenic house story in the next couple of days, but at least I’ve written something. I promised my editor I would write at least a little each day, and adding the report to the end of the evening blog post is so far proving an effective way to keep me on track. We’ll see if it keeps up.

In the meantime I’m still spending way too much time analyzing and considering my best hours of the day to write, certain that if I plan often enough and schedule well enough I’ll eventually hit on that magic window in which my stories flow like water and writing them doesn’t feel like work. I’ve tried multiple times to try out the early-hours that everyone promises is the best time to get the worm, but I keep on falling back on night shift. At this point in my “career” (such as it is) I can’t tell if evening legitimately belongs in my schedule as my most productive work hours, or if habit has finally built up around the 8 p.m to midnight time block (or, even more commonly, the 9 or 10 to 0200 hours). Through the years I’ve gotten into the habit of putting off the inevitable close of the day by reading through some of my work before I finally crawl into bed, which naturally leads to a bit of editing. A bit of editing leads to fussing, fussing leads to an additional sentence or sometimes even a paragraph, and then of course we end up on the dark side, as all of Yoda’s failed students do.

Honestly, thinking about writing–planning how and when and sometimes even what–is a great way to feel like I’m working on my writing without actually have to do the work of writing. I’m self aware enough to recognize what I’m doing, but even with the map of known habits, behaviors, and detours laid out in my head, the old self-control remains a vehicle that doesn’t really like to be driven. In fact, that’s the reason I never read books on writing. These are simultaneously fascinating and generally unhelpful, as they’re typically a series of short, academically-detailed stories on how that particular author writes; you can glean advice but you’ll never write the same way and it’s tempting to assure yourself that – if you could just follow this advice perfectly – the book you have been planning for the past fifteen years will follow. (I can assure you: it does not.) So worse: they are an exceptionally sneaky way to feel satisfied with the progress you’re making in your plans while never actually getting around to writing. I google specific problems instead, and if I ever re-find that website bookmarked on an old desktop that was my go-to for story structure, I’ll share it with you.

Not that I have any strong opinions on the subject. Over-analyzing at a quarter to midnight is simply a hobby of mine.

Word count report: Alex Byrnes is a Double-Crossing Weasel, 1,034 words

Quality Koosh

My brother-in-law sent this to me via my Facebook page the other day:

And, well, frankly:

The computer in question looks blank, but that’s either a fault of the lighting or the way cell cameras take photos of screens. In point of fact there are two Word documents open in that shot, both of which belong to Pine & Meyer. One is the entire novella under the working title “Splintered House” (specifically page 29, about 1,850 words into chapter 4 because I have made progress, all evidence to the contrary) and the other is “Splintered_chapter breakdown,” which is how I’m keeping track of my rewrite notes.

However, the prosecution would like to point out that, though I made some pretty significant headway on Sunday night, I actually had this morning off of work and yet somehow do not have more to show for it. The best-laid plans so often fail in the follow-through. I meant to use the unexpected leisure time for writing, but, naturally, spent it watching episodes of Voyager instead.

I don’t even like Voyager that much. However, I was able to confirm that, yes, I still have the last remaining shreds of a TV-crush on the pilot. Time well wasted, as it were.

The ensuing day has been a strange one, especially once I got off of work. Apparently I’m wearing my weed-dealing outfit today (as seen above), because a young man came up to me while I was eating a sandwich to ask for a joint. Or to offer me one. I’m not entirely certain; he mimed the action, then apologized at the slightly appalled, “Uh…no,” I answered him with.

Mind you, I was sitting in the back corner of a Subway at the time, hidden behind a large display rack for chips because I always pick the power position in the room (line-of-sight to the door and no way for anyone to sneak up behind you). So it probably wasn’t entirely the outfit’s fault.

Afterwards (very shortly afterwards — I decided I had spent just about enough time in that particular Subway for one evening), I went for a walk in Shoaff Park, a forested trail that runs along the St. Joe River. Though “trail” is a bit of a misnomer. It’s paved and, as I found out, a highly favored route between 6 and 7 p.m. Half a mile down the path I was deluged by about a hundred bicyclists — and I’m pretty certain I’m not exaggerating that number — who hailed me (and each other) with shouts of “Walker!” “Walker on the right!” and “On your left!” which felt more than a little excessive after about the thirtieth time. I couldn’t decide if I was an exhibition at the zoo, or hadn’t made it through the Zombie apocalypse. Rick Grime’s band of humans seems to be thriving.

As to my plans for the rest of the evening, they look a little something like this:

Half full? Half empty? Nah. Just half.

Well, I’ve gotten a whole lot of nothin’ done this evening. I’ve written half a story, but that’s still half a story less than what I need for posting. Of course, I would have more than 2,000 words sitting on my hard-drive if I hadn’t gotten sucked into the ancient and unknown terrors of the Lovecraftian section of YouTube; which is odd, considering that I’m not exactly a fan. I admire the atmospheric, crawlingly-claustrophobic feel that H.P. Lovecraft’s rather poetic prose creates (and I’m a sucker for creepy short stories: Ray Bradbury’s “The Veldt,” anyone?), but my favorite stories are driven by the actions, thoughts, motivations, and dialogue of characters. Lovecraft horror works because he first untethers rationality, explains the indescribable by admitting that it’s indescribable (and thereby forcing imagination to take over — and there is nothing like imagination for filling in the holes better than any description could by either words, art, or computer graphics), and then ultimately tells the meat of the story in lengthy prose after the fact. His characters are inevitably doomed, like sleepwalkers who can’t turn left or right. They’re ghost stories told around a campfire, with the added disorientation of dream logic.

What tethers me to reality is a worldview that sits 180 degrees opposite of anything written by the man who created the Cthulhu mythos. I love a good atmospheric story, but it cannot haunt me when I don’t share Lovecraft’s cosmic indifference.

Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large. To me there is nothing but puerility in a tale in which the human form—and the local human passions and conditions and standards—are depicted as native to other worlds or other universes. To achieve the essence of real externality, whether of time or space or dimension, one must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all. Only the human scenes and characters must have human qualities. These must be handled with unsparing realism, (not catch-penny romanticism) but when we cross the line to the boundless and hideous unknown—the shadow-haunted Outside—we must remember to leave our humanity and terrestrialism at the threshold.

— H. P. Lovecraft, in note to the editor of Weird Tales, on resubmission of “The Call of Cthulhu”

Philosophically, it makes for neat story-telling. Why wouldn’t something non-human live by non-human logic? Yet my worldview puts humanity at the center of the story. Not a side-note in some ancient evil’s locker room talk; not an inevitably doomed experiment forgotten by the Elder Things; not an existence in a universe that’s utterly unbound by law. Instead, I know that all of history hinges on the cross-shaped conjunction of justice and mercy. I can imagine and what-if to my heart’s content, but when I put the pen down there is no escaping the bounds of that describable reality.

And so I cannot write like H.P. Lovecraft.

But I do not have his nightmares either.

A process by which molecules of a solvent tend to pass through a semipermeable membrane

Writing came to me by osmosis, at first.

I never felt as though I had to learn it, same as I never felt I had to learn how to read. Reading was sitting in church with the bulletin in my hand, sure that I understood the indecipherable black print on the page because I knew exactly what was coming next. I’d heard the services so often I’d mouth the pastor’s part along with my father, sitting in my mother’s lap as she pointed at each line. I may not have known how to read, but I knew exactly what was written. It struck me as only natural that I would one day break the barrier between the two.

To learn to read was something I assumed I was already doing, and writing was a closely related family member.  The two seemed to me inseparable partners – once you were familiar with one, you were inextricably familiar with the other. No one ever told me I was going to have to learn. Reading was a fact of life, like green grass, Church on Sundays, and dusting the dining room chairs on Saturday morning. Like my brother and sister before me, it would quite obviously come to me of its own accord. Kindergarten rolled around and I filled out dotted-line worksheet after worksheet, vaguely aware that I should try to learn the letters I was tracing.

By the end of the year, I didn’t know my alphabet.

The week before 1st grade started I panicked. Years later my parents explained in some amusement their exasperation at my kindergarten teacher for dropping the little remark oh-by-the-way-Andrea-still-doesn’t-know-her-alphabet at the very last parent-teacher conference of the year. They spent the summer catching me up on the lessons I’d apparently ignored. Some of that must have finally sunk in the few days before “real school” (as I thought of all-day school), and I was suddenly certainly and terribly afraid that I would never learn how to write. It was the first and last time Mom and Dad ever bought me a present for the new school year. The small stuffed animal soothed me into sleep that night before 1st grade started, and it only seems remarkable to me now how parents seem to intrinsically know how to read their children.

By 3pm, I was no longer afraid – having discovered that my teacher did not expect me to figure out how to read or write after one day in her class.

As soon as I learned how to string a sentence together, I wrote a short story simply titled “Andrea book,” with a picture of a cat on a mat crayoned across the front.  Once opened, the book revealed the situation: cat and dog. dog is soft. dog slid. cat is ill. dog is sad. cat is glad. It was the first and least cohesive tale in the series of unrelated books I wrote and illustrated over the year.

But just like that, writing had revealed itself to me: a magical vehicle, a creature that can tell the stories in my head. Writing leads to reading, and reading is a window into adventure; into another’s heart and mind; into the kind of fantasies we dream about as children and quietly let go into adulthood. I will never save the world. I will likely never save someone’s life. The dangers I face will be both more dull and more heartbreaking – sickness, dementia, the petty arguments that can drive a wedge into what you had once thought was a rock-strong relationship, loneliness, the fear that your dreams (as little as they may seem) will never be realized. Reading is for the impossible. This is where I slay dragons.

Looking back, my parents were probably relieved when I brought “Andrea book” to them and showed them that the soft dog slid.

And Andrea? Well, once the cat got over her illness and the dog cheered up, Andrea was glad.

Streeeetch that clothing dollar

I was looking for a way to squeeze blood out of a rock this morning (in lieu of writing any original content – particularly since I keep forgetting to borrow that poem from IT Guy), and came up with this:

  • DUNA Mining Corp
  • Guttersnipe
  • Mr. and Mrs. Fox Come Calling
  • Selective Mutism 1
  • Selective Mutism 2
  • Sir George and the Dragon Lady
  • Sleeping Beauty
  • The Art of the Catapult – Series idea
  • The Fools
  • The MacWitts
  • The Marquis of Fools

These 11 documents currently reside in a folder called “_WIPs” which is, in turn, hiding in my “Short Stories” file. I’m working on a novel (I’m always working on a novel, however, so this is hardly remarkable) but that doesn’t stop the ideas from coming. I’ll throw a bunch of thoughts into a Word document – occasionally packed around a few descriptive paragraphs and a handful of dialogue – and then let them percolate in the back of my mind for upwards of three years. I have a very vague plan to keyboard mash these short stories into existence once my young adult novel is finished, if only to check them off my mental to-do list. But as today is not that day, feel free to admire these working titles.

The shortest of these documents is “The Art of the Catapult – Series idea” with 217 words, and at 5,186 words “The MacWitts” clocks in as the longest. Most of the rest of them sit between 2,000 and 3,000 words, and because I really wanted to stretch what little I had to say, I pulled out my calculator and came up with 23,218 words for the entire lot. Have I mentioned lately that I’m terrible at keeping my short stories short? Because I’m terrible at keeping my short stories short.

I wasn’t kidding about needing to work on my focus. That’s over 20,000 currently unusable words, which is 19,500 more words than I have written for my novel. If you don’t count the following:

  • 15 versions of chapter 1
  • 4 versions of chapter 2
  • 2 versions of chapter 3
  • 26 paragraphs from a long discarded chapter 4
  • 3 versions of a prologue – also long discarded
  • 5 Word files acting as a repository for both notes and lines
  • 2 paper-and-pen notebooks filled entirely with unreadable cursive
  • and a document that is literally titled “Waste of Time”

Fortunately, my picture books are heading forward at a more productive speed. I’ve inked eleven two-page spreads for “The Bump Under the Bed” since Saturday, with six left. I should have the inks done by next week and, though coloring is a much slower process, I actually have a decent chance at making my self-inflicted deadline by the end of the month. That gives me another week to mess around with backgrounds and text, which should leave me with three more for ordering proof copies in time to make any edits. If I don’t make my September 1st deadline, I should, at the very least, be close.

Finally, I watched “Little Shop of Horrors” last night with my parents and had some barely conceived notion of using today’s post to talk about the differing psychological impacts between movies and plays, but that’ll keep for another time. I have a novel to put off write.

The Use of Fact in Fiction

Stories rely on a writer’s ability to create a reality that is quickly and easily understood by an audience that hasn’t seen, let alone imagined, that reality themselves. The more convincing the reality, the more compelling the story, and the better the story does its job. When a credible reality forms the foundation of a story, that story more powerfully entertains (or – if you’re into that sort of thing – educates). As far as I’m concerned, fact always makes fiction better. And in the age of the internet, people expect accuracy.

You can sometimes assume a certain amount of forgiveness for the realities you create, depending on your genre. For example, the actually-quite-ridiculous tropes that make up fairytales (dress in a walnut, anyone?) are accepted as an established part of the storytelling. No one questions a talking animal in a Grimm’s fable. It would be like going to a musical and demanding to know why everyone breaks into songs that perfectly tie into their feelings and/or the overarching theme of the plot. Once a reader recognizes the threads of a traditional fairytale in the story they’re reading, they immediately become more indulgent of the author’s reality.

Scifi is another genre. As long as it’s not hard science fiction, you can play fast and loose with physical reality. Every third-grade student with a basic grasp of the solar system would laugh at Ray Bradbury’s 1950 depiction of Venus as a planet constantly besieged by rain and covered by fungus if he’d written it now, but “All Summer in a Day” is still a terribly accurate depiction of the cruelty of children. Just make sure your people are acting like people, and consistently follow your own rules. Venus is a rain-drenched world overgrown with plants? Fine, but it still better be by the end of it.

However, if a book’s reality is based in the real-world, real-world rules must apply. Never has the reader been more skeptical or more ready to defend his skepticism than in the age of wireless connections, smartphones, and Google search. With the advent of the internet, every reader has easy access to nearly infinite libraries, and a story must survive any immediate fact-checking to its basic reality when everyone, as they say, is a critic. A book is judged as much by the facts that exist within its covers as by its plot.

This is not a challenge that belongs solely to the cyberspace generations. H. G. Wells was a particular master of setting the fantastic upon the mundane. War of the Worlds, written in 1898 and based on the areas in which he lived and explored by bicycle, details an alien invasion in which, in his own words, “I completely wreck and sack Woking – killing my neighbors in painful and eccentric ways – then proceed via Kingston and Richmond to London, which I sack, selecting South Kensington for feat of peculiar atrocity.” He didn’t simply write about an imaginary alien invasion. He wrote about an imaginary alien invasion that took place in a real time and place. Aliens were one of the few imaginary aspects of the piece.

(Fun fact: apparently Jules Verne, the father of science fiction and a contemporary of Wells, complained that Wells used scientifically implausible inventions, like time machines and spaceships not powered by coal or other late 19th century mechanisms for power. Still, though Wells’ devices may not have worked in the real-world, his ideas could be imagined in it. His use of mundane reality made the fantastic believable.)

William Golding did something similar in my favorite illustration of original sin ever, Lord of the Flies. According to the overly wordy introduction to my copy (said the blogger in her overly wordy essay on the use of fact in fiction), he presumably used the teachings of psychoanalysts, anthropologists, social psychologists, philosophical this, that, or the other (if it had an “ologist” at the end of it or a “p” at the start it made the list) and wrote a disturbingly plausible thought-experiment on what happens to humanity when you remove all civil constraints and leave sinful man to his own devices.

(In short: Kill the beast! Cut his throat! Spill his blood!)

Eesh. Good times, Bill. I once read William Golding explaining the too-optimistic end to his novel – an adult coming in deus ex machina style to save the boys from themselves – as nothing of the kind. The last image of the novel is the naval officer turning from the weeping main character to look at his cruiser, trim, civilized, and prepped for war. Man can never save man from himself. Without the psychological (and – dare I say – theological) understanding of the evil inbred in our nature, Lord of the Flies would have been a mere adventure story. Just one of thousands.

Animal Farm (subtitled “A fairy story”) is another favorite dystopian nightmare of mine. Written by George Orwell in 1945 – while Soviet Russia was still the great hero and ally of WWII – he used talking barn animals and a farm run by communist pigs to criticize the government hailing out of Moscow. A socialist himself, Orwell had narrowly escaped the communist manhunts in Spain, and he was dismayed at – as he put it – “how easily totalitarian propaganda can control the opinion of enlightened people in democratic countries.” Still busy singing Stalin’s praises, companies in both Britain and American refuses to publish the satire, right up until the Cold War.

The pointed comparisons that Animal Farm made between socialist ideals and the reality of communist Russia were – and are – powerful. Read through many internet discussion boards and it becomes clear that Orwell is alive and well. Though one of the reigning adages on the internet is Godwin’s Rule of Nazi Analogies (which maintains that every argument on an internet chat forum will inevitably lead to a comparison to Hitler or Nazism), the following could easily be added as a subset: that every political argument will also eventually invoke “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”  The “fairy story” is over seventy years old, and still making people mad. That is the power of fact.

Of course, not all fiction is created equal (some of it is, one could argue, more equal than others), and not every story intends to make a point. Many are written primarily to entertain. But how well it entertains depends just as much on fact as the book that was written to teach. For $8.75 at the local bookstore, fantasies provide hours of some of the best escapism out there, and are even more firmly bound by rules than “real” fiction.

Harry Potter, for example, is a world based on magic and the clever bastardization of Latin words, yet it clearly resonates with people across countries, continents, and oceans. Why? Because it is founded, at a deeper level, on reality. There are trolls and giants and magical games on broomsticks, but there are also children going to school and studying for exams and trying to figure out what to do when faced with hard choices. Everyone understands the struggle to grow and move on and face forward. Create a reality that allows your reader to fully immerse in both story and characters, and a school fantasy of epic good vs. evil makes an author billions.

Even better, entertainment almost always accidentally teaches. Westerns owe much of their appeal to the guarantee that the good guy always win (and the bad guys are not only hatchet-faced but also have names like Scut and Fargus), but they’re also a great portrayal of the Old West. I’ve learned more from Louis L’amour than I ever expected to*. Romances too run about a dime a dozen, but the ones that are passed on from generation to generation have, at their heart, an understanding of human psychology, social constraints, and a depiction of history from a domestic perspective. Jane Austen survived the century, as did the Brontë sisters. Gone with the Wind lives on as both a romance and a look at life during and after the Civil War. It demonstrates the everyday struggles of the time period (and how that may have felt) in a way that no history book can ever quite capture.

The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 is my young adult go-to example. Based on a very real event (the unsolved bombing of the Sixteenth Avenue Baptist Church on September 15, 1963, where four teenage girls were killed during the civil rights period) the author neither preaches nor sermonizes. Instead, most of his story focuses on the Watson family and their hilarious everyday lives. Yet by the time the bombing occurs in the storyline, I’ve been sucked into the perspective of a young black boy in the 60s. “Although these names,” Christopher Paul Curtis writes in the epilogue of his novel, referring to the four young women killed, “may be nothing more than names in a book to you now, you must remember that these children were just as precious to their families as Joetta was to the Watsons or as your brothers and sisters are to you.”  

Knowledge never limits; it enhances and broadens. As the world opens up, so do the stories. In many ways, that has always been the point of fiction. By no means do facts destroy imagination. Even in the scientific world, two scientists working from the same set of observable data may come up with completely different theories. Rather, facts provide opportunities to create believable realities. Stories based on an accurate understanding of either the world or – at the very least – the people in it can better hold up against the hordes of armchair scholars ready and willing to crush the hours you poured into spinning the weave of your world into so much forgettable pulp.

Pour truth into the undergirding of your story, and time may well let you pass unhindered. In 1993, when asked to write an introduction for To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee refused. “Mockingbird,” she wrote in a short foreword, “still says what it has to say; it has managed to survive the years without preamble.”

*Bank a fire against a rock to project heat. Look back as you walk a trail so that you may better recognize it when you return. If you stare into a fire you won’t be able to see anything for a few crucial seconds between staring at the fire and firing your weapon at someone creeping up on you in the dark.

My honor demands I pick up that glove and give satisfaction

So in response to the last post, a certain member of my family *hacking coughs that rhyme with IT guy’s name* rather insensitively pointed out that a writing exercise whose main edict is “make longer sentences of these shorter sentences” is pretty much my perfect homework assignment.

Challenge accepted. The following is a self-inflicted assignment to make shorter sentences of these longer ones.

Mrs. Bauermann’s obituary would later say she had been a pillar of the community, an officer in her neighborhood association and the kind of person who volunteered countless hours at the nearby school, but when the students at the nearby school in question first heard about the old bat’s sudden demise, it was from an article on page two of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, under the headline “Local Woman Dies on Roof.”

  • Old bat dies on roof.


But Teddy’s grades swung between A’s and D’s with no discernible pattern, his entire academic career could be summed up by the running theme in his report cards since kindergarten (“Great enthusiasm but he needs to learn how to pay attention!”), and the only time anyone had asked him if he was “Gonna go to the big city and fight crime?” he had answered “Sure!” and then leaned into Jeremiah to whisper, “I’m probably just going to stay here for the rest of my life.”

  • Teddy’s an idiot.


[The sound of stifled giggling] wasn’t coming from the football team (good thing; besides the fact that he had no desire to find out what a giggling fullback sounded like, he had them under strict orders to treat Cynthia and her cohorts with respect; they were welcome to mock him about his harem of octogenarians, so long as they left the octogenarians themselves alone), nor from the girls, who had made room at their booth for four of Jeremiah’s guys.

  • Holy crap, learn how to use semicolons sparingly.


When he came back from the confab (they were apparently having trouble hunting down a jack, though Mr. Grady thought they had a bead on one over in Stanton; as to Dr. Murphy, she was taping up another injury from some kid who’d jumped into a downed fence post, but she’d be by as soon as she was done), he retightened the poncho around Teddy’s arm without bothering to relay the information.

  • Andrea suddenly realized that the scene was already 4,373 words long, and subsequently summarized a boring but necessary conversation leading in to the end of the chapter.


School had been canceled for a grand total of one day, and though the rest of the Banner High Heroes (as the papers had dubbed the kids who had stepped in to save their town – most of whom missed their fifteen minutes of fame, having slept long and hard through the moment that someone over in Megalopolis realized that Banner, NJ had actually done something interesting for once) felt more insulted than gratified by the one-day vacation, Jeremiah didn’t mind getting back to his normal routine.

  • This sentence is 86 unalterable words long.


As always the image was so badly pixilated that Friday couldn’t make out the zits on her face or her eye color (blue, and the only thing she liked about her looks now that her hair – dyed red and cut into what she had recently decided was an ugly A-line – didn’t count), but the reflection moved like her, reacted like her, and Friday’s every movement matched what her reflection had done without her even trying.

  • A description of the main character, shoehorned into the opening scene.


Father thought it a good joke, and did not know how it stung me to hear that his advisors approached him with the estimated costs of building a door-less tower and hiring some sort of beast to guard it (giants, for example, demand deep pockets; Father apparently suggested a dragon, which are notably cheaper – though of course one must take into account the inevitable damages in setting one loose on the kingdom), versus the suggestion that he simply drive me from the castle with nothing but a dress packed into a walnut.

  • King Dad is genre savvy.


There could’ve been racially charged fights—there were enough differences in skin shades in the public schools to fill a crayon box—but it was more likely the school would close because Godzilla had attacked the city or some megalomaniac was threatening utter destruction or the keys to the city now if you please, and that tended to curb gang-related activity.

  • Godzilla is unhindered by ethnic diversity.


Smart and aggressive – the most naturally gifted caster the family had seen in nearly a century – Adam had brought crows streaming into the house as his mother pushed him, squalling, out of her womb, drawn maggots out of the mud as he pulled himself, half-drowned, back on shore when he was six, and two years before, in a fit of screaming rage, the nine-year-old had called his mother’s corpse out of the swamp.

She hadn’t been the only thing that had come: half eaten deer carcasses, the rotting remains of a crocodile that had dragged itself onto land, trailing toes and leg bones like the blocks on a toddler’s pull-string toy, hollowed-out birds, sodden rodents with their eyes gone, and the white vertebrae of hundreds – perhaps thousands – of fish. The swamp regurgitated everything it had swallowed with flesh still on its bones, and the banks had crawled.

  • Remember kids: “nine-year-old” is one word.


And there you have it. Absolute cakewalk, IT Guy.

Fun fact: this entire post, from opening line to final footer (but not counting the title), is made up of 955 words broken into 26 sentences.