Tools of the trade
How much should a writer know about writing? Writing, like painting or composing music, is one of those oddities. A talented individual can do it naturally without any formal training at all, and still produce stunning masterpieces. Nevertheless, generally speaking, painters are better for understanding perspective, musicians for knowing their scales, and writers for understanding grammar. A craftsman should know the tools of the trade.
Shakespeare never took a creative writing class in his life, but Shakespeare was a genius who instinctively knew the rules. He also knew when he could creatively break them. However, most writers are not Shakespeare. Just as a carpenter should know the difference between a plane and a sander, a writer should know the difference - for example - between a simile and a metaphor.
This idea comes a a shock to those who feel that writing should be a seat-of-the-pants sort of thing where all that counts is 'being yourself'. Such writers are not only disinclined to follow 'rules', but are often unaware that rules exist. (Annoyingly, these writers sometimes produce best-sellers.)
I once commented on one author's work that the prosody of his text did not work for me. He emailed back with the bemused query 'WTF is prosody?' Linguists will probably howl in pain at my simplistic definition, but prosody in writing is basically how the text would feel when read aloud. This is not whether it would sound good, which is euphonics (sorry again, linguists), but whether the style matches the context.
In action scenes, choppy, short phrases work well. Lively text with an upbeat pitch fails to capture the deep introspective grief of a funeral. Judicious highlighting of a word can turn a supposedly bland sentence into discreet sarcasm. Long, languid paragraphs go naturally with hot summer afternoons. That sort of thing is prosody.
Most writers handle this stuff without thinking how they do it, and that's great when it works. However, rather than just being uneasily aware that 'it doesn't feel right' when a text doesn't work, it's useful to have the skills to identify exactly what's wrong.
The wild east
The 'Game of Thrones' novels and the subsequent TV pot-boiler series have had a lot of well-deserved publicity lately. Yet few of the fans have ever heard of the Seleucid kings. This is a pity, because many of them had lives worthy of the George. R.R. Martin treatment, except that the truth might not be credible enough for a novel.
Consider Demetrius II Nicanor, ruler of the Seleucid empire in 145-138 BC and again 129-126 BC. When his father died in battle the young heir to the throne had to flee for his life when his brother and mother conspired to steal the crown from him. While in exile Demetrius took an Egyptian wife, and with the help of the Pharaoh reconquered his kingdom (his brother died in the process).
However, the brutality of his mercenaries caused a rebellion in Syria where the young son of Demetrius' brother was declared king. This young son died soon after in suspicious circumstances and a rebel general took over. The neighbouring Parthians decided to take advantage of the chaos and invaded, capturing Demetrius in the process.
As a Parthian captive, Demetrius was treated well. He married a Parthian princess, but nevertheless attempted to escape, once with the help of a friend who conducted a solo undercover mission through Babylonia and Parthia to reach the imprisoned king.
When Demetrius was finally freed, he re-took his kingdom. However, he was not a popular monarch and ruled with brutality once he had failed to charm his subjects. He was defeated in the subsequent rebellion, and fled to the fortress of Ptolemais where he had stashed his wife, children and treasure. His wife locked him out of the fortress, and Demetrius was captured, tortured and killed by his enemies while attempting to escape by sea.
This brief synopsis of a pretty average Seleucid monarch's life demonstrates the mixture of battles, exotic locations, diplomatic double-dealing and vicious palace intrigue that has made 'Game of Thrones' so popular. The Seleucids deserve more recognition. All they lack are dragons.
A while back I had to interrupt someone giving me a list of symptoms and explain that I was not that kind of doctor. The woman was less than impressed by a doctorate in ancient history, and remarked in a disappointed tone 'So you are not a real doctor, then?'
At that point I could have explained in detail. The term 'doctor' comes from the Latin 'docere', meaning 'to teach', or 'cause to know'. There were doctors teaching in Medieval universities when medical work was being done by the people who also trimmed beards and pulled teeth. Today, French docteurs, German doktors and Italian dottores do not have to explain that they are not involved with the medical profession, because in their languages the word has not been hijacked by physicians. (Who answer to 'medecin', 'Arzt', and 'medico' respectively.)
Generally, on the rare occasions when one has to get all formal, it's easier to avoid getting confused with the pill-slingers by putting the qualification after the name rather than the initials at the front. (But not both; it's bad form to call oneself Dr X, Ph.D - that's a sort of titular double-dipping.)
However even post-name alphabetage can cause problems in my case, because I don't have a Ph.D . I have a D.Phil. This is the older title for the same degree which Oxford and some other universities still use, but the D.Phil. is almost unknown in the Americas. So at a conference in the States almost a decade ago a kindly gentleman asked if I was going to 'continue my studies' to the Ph.D level. I explained that my university was in the habit of qualifying Doctores Philosophiae in Literae Humaniores instead, and I may have explained this with unnecessary vehemence.
Like most male academics I generally get by with 'Mr' unless needing to reassure people that I know what I'm talking about in a professional capacity. Even that can cause problems. Credit card companies and their ilk insist on these things being precise, but hotels and shops tend to simply assume the 'Mr', so then there's the bother of explaining to a sceptical individual on the end of a phone line that both of me are the same person.
In time, one learns to roll with the punches. With the woman with whom I was conversing at the start of the this post, I commented that I was indeed a 'real' doctor, but the patient would have to be dead for at least 2000 years before I could be of any use.
Spring around the Earth
Ahh... spring. That's when, in exchange for longer days and great scenery, I have to double up on my chores. It's still cold enough to have to chop firewood for the nights, but now the lawn needs mowing in the day as well. Then there's getting the kinks ironed out of the final chapters of the novel, finishing off my biography of Heracles, and getting teaching material up to date. I'm also negotiating two book contracts, and have promised some work to my colleagues over at UNRV. There may not be a lot of time left for floating around mountain lakes this summer.
It does not help that I've moved from winding my way through Aristotle's 'Politics' to fighting it out with Lucan's Latin in the 'Pharsalia'. Apart from anything else, deciphering Lucan's obscure mythological references make the thing a sort of classicist's crossword. Then something in the text needs researching further, and I zoom off on a tangent.
For example, there's a profession from antiquity I recently discovered; the pacer. Ever wondered how the Romans knew where to place their milestones? They hired a pacer, a man trained to take steps of exactly the same length. To give some idea of how well this worked, consider Eratosthenes, the man who measured the circumference of the earth. He did this by measuring the angle of the midsummer sun in Alexandria, and comparing it with shadows cast further south in Syene.
The difference in the angle represented seven degrees of curvature in the earth's surface. Therefore multiply the curvature into a full circle and do the same with the exact distance between Alexandria and Syene, and you get the actual circumference of the planet. However, to get the exact distance to Syene, someone had to pace it off, and do so accurately enough that even when the distance was extrapolated to the circumference of the planet the reading remained true.
In fact, he got the circumference of the Earth wrong by somewhere between 15% and 0.5% (depending which of the many different measurements called a 'stade' Eratosthenes actually used.) That's a tribute to the genius of Eratosthenes, but also to the skill of the man who so accurately counted out the 861,840 paces between Syene and Alexandria.
I'm a lumberjack and it's ok
An academic colleague I haven't seen for a while saw a pic on my Facebook page and remarked that I have 'nailed the lumbersexual look'. Since I had not the foggiest idea what she was talking about, I did what any lumbersexual would do, and did some research on the internet. Turns out that while living in a small town deep in the Monashee mountains, I'm nevertheless at the cutting edge of fashion.
According to the Guardian newspaper's Holly Baxter 'the lumbersexual is here, with his beard, plaid shirt, backpack and artfully scruffy hair'. Ah, thought I, rubbing my beard while looking at my plaid shirt and the backpack sitting in the corner. The only reason I don't have scruffy hair is because the little I have left is shaved to under a centimetre's length for convenience. Further reading suggested that work boots and braces ('suspenders' if you are American) perfectly round out the lumbersexual's outfit. Check, and check.
But hold on ... 'He is at the same time both aggressively attached to the traditionally masculine look and completely removed from the lifestyle that it advertises.' er, Removed? First off, the colleague who describes me as 'looking like a lumberjack' doesn't know that these days lumberjacks wear hard hats, ear protectors and florescent yellow nylon jackets. I do know that, because lumberjacks and logging trucks are everyday sights hereabouts.
The lumbersexual should own, but have no chance to use, a 'vintage Colorado hatchet'. Instead I have two hatchets and use both daily - a Truper hand maul for splitting firewood, and a Yardworks hatchet for cutting kindling. My neighbour once absent-mindedly let a bobcat indoors thinking it was the family pet, and a woman a few kilometers down the road was attacked by a cougar while she was watching TV in her lounge. Since I regularly chase bears out of the backyard and swat raccoons off the deck with a broom, I'd suggest that some people do have the lifestyle that goes with the look.
It's a plaid shirt, because good luck finding a woollen shirt hereabouts that isn't plaid. Wool is warm and waterproof in winter and mosquitoes bite right through cotton in summer. The trousers are denim because it is a 420km round trip to anywhere that sells anything that isn't denim (or cord), and non-denim trousers are called 'dress pants' - as in 'I can't help you stack that wood/butcher that deer/get your canoe off the garage roof, because I'm wearing dress pants'.
Ideally, my job should involve something like hunting wolves with a buck knife, instead of sitting at a computer researching and writing about Roman history. But if I dress for my job in a toga they'll laugh at me when I go grocery shopping down at the gulch in Trail.
(The Facebook pic has been removed, by the way.)