Tuesday, December 28, 2010

This past year in writing

Livia Blackburne has a post about how she's improved in writing this past year, namely how she's improved her style of writing.  That got me to thinking about ways in which I've improved as a writer this past year.  I don't think I can point to any particular aspect of writing in which I've improved, but I have improved in one way: I've become a more disciplined writer.  Not perfectly disciplined, mind you, as I still have lapses, but I've become better at setting aside time for writing, and writing stories from beginning to end.  I've also broadened my horizons and begun writing in more genres, tackling ideas farther afield from my usual area.  There are plenty of ways in which I'd still like to improve, of course, but I think that's a significant step in the right direction.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Storyblogging Carnival coming up

The next Storyblogging Carnival will go up on Monday, January 10th. If you use your blog to share your fiction, then the Storyblogging Carnival is your opportunity. Here we host any and all forms of storytelling in blog format. If you're curious about what this looks like, have a look at some examples of previous storyblogging carnivals.

If you'd like to participate, please e-mail your story submissions to me at dscrank-at-alum-dot-mit-dot-edu (or post in my comments), including the following information:
  • Name of your blog
  • URL of your blog
  • Title of the story
  • URL for the blog entry where the story is posted
  • (OPTIONAL) Author's name
  • (OPTIONAL) A suggested rating for adult content (G, PG, PG-13, R)
  • A word count
  • A short blurb describing the story
The post may be of any age, from a week old to years old. The submission deadline is 11:59 PM Eastern time on Saturday, January 8th. More detailed information follows (same as always):
  1. The story or excerpt submitted must be posted on-line as a blog entry, and while fiction is preferred, non-fiction storytelling is acceptable.
  2. The story can be any length, but the Carnival will list them in order of length, from shortest to longest, and include a word count for each one.
  3. You may either send a complete story, a story in progress, or a lengthy excerpt. You should indicate the word count for both the excerpt and the complete story in the submission, and you should say how the reader can find more of the story in the post itself.
  4. If the story spans multiple posts, each post should contain a link to the beginning of the story, and a link to the next post. You may submit the whole story, the first post, or, if you've previously submitted earlier posts to the Carnival, the next post which you have not submitted. Please indicate the length of the entire story, as well as the portion which you are submitting.
  5. The host has sole discretion to decide whether the story will be included or not, or whether to indicate that the story has pornographic or graphically violent content. The ratings for the story will be decided by the host. I expect I'll be pretty lenient on that sort of thing, but I have some limits, and others may draw the line elsewhere. Aside from noting potentially offensive content, while I may say nice things about stories I like, I won't be panning anyone's work. I expect other hosts to be similarly polite.
  6. The story may be the blogger's own or posted with permission, but if it is not his own work he should gain permission from the author before submitting to the Carnival.
If you'd like to be added to the e-mail list, please let me know. Finally, I appreciate folks promoting the carnival on their own blogs, and I'm always looking for bloggers willing to host future carnivals.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Review of "From Words to Brain" by Livia Blackburne

Disclosure: Livia is a friend of mine, and sent me a free review copy of this essay.  I will nonetheless endeavor to be as balanced as possible in my review.

Livia's essay, "From Words to Brain," is a 7,700 word overview of the scientific literature on how the brain interprets stories.  Using the example of the story of "Little Red Riding Hood," she reviews how the brain recognizes letters and words, visualizes the scenes and actions, empathizes with the characters, and draws moral conclusions from the story.  The writing is tight without being dense, and easily understandable by the layman.  And I, at least, find the subject fascinating.

The essay's weakness is that it is too short.  As a writer always looking for ways to improve my art, I'm certainly interested in what brain science tells us about how people read, and write, stories.  While there were some useful tidbits in the essay, most of them are tricks that experienced writers already know--such as that readers fill in the details in a scene without requiring overdone description. There were a few things which I had never thought about or didn't know, such that women tend to sympathize more with the antagonist than men do, but I feel like there's a lot more that Livia could have shared with us in a longer essay.

This probably wouldn't affect how I viewed a free essay available online, but the publisher is charging over $5 for the essay.  Considering that you can get entire classic novels for free on Amazon's Kindle, this seems like too much for this essay.  I would still recommend it if you are interested in the subject, and would like a stepping stone to more advanced work, such as the literature Livia cites.  But I'm hesitant to recommend it to those on a writer's budget.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Experimental Archaeology

As I mentioned the other day, Kristin and I did some ancient Roman cooking a week ago.  The great challenge in doing something like this is finding the ingredients.  Garum, a popular fish sauce in ancient Rome, isn't exactly available at the grocery store (although there's a reasonable substitute used in Vietnamese cooking).  We managed to make do there.  Harder to find was a substitute for defrutum, which is reduced grape must.  We had to go to a wine supply store to get something roughly equivalent.

That was the most difficult part from our end, but in reality the most difficult part of Roman cooking is figuring out the recipes.  There are a few ancient sources of Roman recipes, Apicius being the most famous.  However, Roman recipes tend to lack such niceties as amounts and cooking times.  For example:
For mussels: Garum, chopped leek, cumin, passum, savory, and wine. Dilute this mixture with water and cook the mussels in it.
(This is taken from the Nova website, which is quoting from the book we used.)
This brings us to the topic of this post, experimental archaeology.  Experimental archaeology is when modern scholars attempt to reproduce the work of previous generations, doing their best to follow their techniques.  This can include reproducing an Ancient Greek repeating ballista, running an Iron Age farm, or cooking a Roman meal.  There is of course a lot of variation in how rigorously this is done.  Our cooking, for example, used a lot of ingredient substitutions, along with modern kitchen appliances, following an interpretation of the Roman recipe.  So not very rigorous on our part.  The authors of the various cookbooks based on Roman recipes are, fortunately, better scholars.  They were the ones who did the actual experimental archaeology in order to turn the the recipes into something usable in a modern kitchen in the first place.

Another way that Kristin and I have taken part in experimental archaeology is in the medieval swordfighting lesson we took earlier this year.  Medieval swordsmanship is a lost art--no one's practiced it for hundreds of years.  The Eastern traditions fared better, as practitioners continued to pass down their fighting techniques, even after they had been surpassed by the gun on the battlefield.  However, European sword techniques have been preserved in one way: there are a number of surviving fight manuals, which display the techniques used in medieval swordsmanship.  They look something like this:

Usually, with a one or two word caption.  This, from Talhoffer (the most famous of the fight books), has the caption War-work.  ARMA (the Association for Renaissance Martial Arts) has lengthy excerpts available online.  Even with the complete fight book, it's hard to make out exactly what's going on in the images.  That's why experimental archaeology is so valuable.  It brings together all the manuals, with real swords, experience with related martial arts, and actual sparring, and attempts to reproduce the techniques which are only hinted at. 

That turns a number of images like the above, into something like this:

Aside from the exercise, why would anyone want to reproduce sword fighting techniques from the late Middle Ages?  Or, for that matter, recipes from the late Roman era?  It's partly a scholarly exercise, useful for archaeologists.  But I find it very helpful for a different reason.  As a writer of fantasy that draws inspiration from both Roman society and the Middle Ages, such experiments give me a better understanding of how the people of that time lived, allowing me to write with greater verisimilitude.

Plus it's fun.  And I, at least, thought the Roman food was pretty good.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Storyblogging Carnival?

Since Christmas is coming this next week, and I think people might be a mite busy, I'm going to delay the Storyblogging Carnival by a week.  The normal announcement will go up next Monday, and submissions will be due by Saturday, January 8th.  Of course, if you send me something early, I'll hold it in reserve until I start accepting submissions.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Roman cooking

Kristin and I made a meal based on Roman recipes today.  Well, mostly Kristin made it, and I helped.  She has all the cooking details, if you're interested, in a post on her blog:
Today Donald and I thought it would be fun to prepare an “authentic” ancient Roman dinner. I have several books on Roman cooking, most making liberal use of Apicius (the most famous ancient Roman cookbook author). I’ve found the most accessible and interesting to be Ilaria Gozzini Giacosa’s A Taste of Ancient Rome (translated by Anna Herklotz; original title was A cena da Lucullo). The author is a foodie with an archaeology background, and her goal was to take recipes from Apicius, Cato and other sources and provide a version that a modern cook could follow. The ancient sources tend not to provide a lot of detail. They’ll give the ingredients (most of them), and some vague clues as to preparation. America’s Test Kitchen it ain’t! Giacosa’s versions of the recipes should, theoretically, be doable in a modern kitchen.
It was a lot of fun, and I thought the result was pretty tasty.  It did take more work than I'd be willing to spend on cooking with any regularity, though.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Storyblogging Carnival CXV

Welcome to the 115th Storyblogging Carnival. There are six entries this time, four of them from new contributors.  Enjoy!

Trippy Limerick
by Madelein Begun Kane of Mad Kane's Humor Blog
An under 100 word brief story rated PG.

The tale of a foiled vacation trip told in a two verse limerick.
Just like old times!!!!
by Witty Jester of Witty Humor
A 200 word graphic story rated G.

A different take on "Noah and his ark"

The First Legion: Part IV of The History of the Domini (To the beginning)
by Donald S. Crankshaw of Back of the Envelope
The next 340 words of a 2,500 word story in progress rated PG.

Randall continues the story of the Domini by recounting the summoning of the First Legion.

This is Necessary
by Mr. Squarehead of Squarehead Diaries
A 388 word short story rated PG.

The world, as I see it from inside out.

by Ingela Richardson of storywishes
A 997 word brief story rated G.

"When Wolfdog was a puppy, he was very cute and fluffy. He was taken from his mother and given to a boy for a pet one cold and snowy Christmas."

On Giving Thanks: grateful I am not a cranberry
by GrrlScientist of Punctuated Equilibrium
A 1,073 word short story rated PG.

My favorite Thanksgiving memory.

This concludes the one hundred and fifteenth Storyblogging Carnival.
If you'd like to take part in a future carnival, please contact me. I am also looking for hosts. Other carnivals can be found here.

The Storyblogging Carnival can be found at The Truth Laid Bear's √úberCarnival.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

The History of the Domini: Part IV

Old Post: Part III can be found here, while the beginning is here.

Being a further account of the history of the Domini, as recorded by Randall Aurelius.

Part IV: The First Legion

The details of the magic involved in the calling of the First Legion are long forgotten.  We do know that it was the first of only two times that the disparate magics of the Shades and the Amaranthine were combined.  The Circuit involved hundreds of magic-users, and many of them died in the effort.  But when it was done, an army had been summoned to our aid.

From where they were summoned is still a mystery.  The First Legion neither spoke our language, nor understood what we wanted from them.  They were angry at being ripped from their own land, but terrified of the magic we wielded.  With great difficulty, we found a way to communicate.  From what we were able to learn, they came from a land similar to ours in many ways, but there they had no contact with naka or goblins or Malwer.  Instead humans warred upon each other for control of the land and the sea.  It is difficult to understand now how strange that was to us then, humans fighting wars against each other.  We were far from a peaceful people even then, but we had no understanding of conflict on such a scale.  The First Legion did, and we needed that understanding.  After a great deal of bargaining, with threats on both sides, we were able to reach an agreement.

The numbers which the First Legion added to humanity’s beleaguered forces were small, but the expertise was considerable.  They were among the best trained and most disciplined soldiers in their land, and they shared their training and experience with us, first strengthening our defenses against the naka and goblins, and then leading the assault to drive back the invaders.  Unprepared as they were to face competent warriors, the nakan advance faltered and then collapsed, and their conquests were quickly retaken.  Emboldened by our successes, we pursued the naka and goblins as they retreated, and may have succeeded in eliminating both races entirely, had not the Malwer themselves taken the field.

This is a 341 word continuation of a 2,500 word story in progress.