Tuesday, 30 September 2014

International Blasphemy Rights Day

Oh, dear, nearly too late for International Blasphemy Rights Day. Let's see if I can squeeze it in. This is not a blaspheme, as such, but a story about why you don't want to go there, religious people.

Some years ago, I thought my daughter should be educated regarding the contents of the Bible, and I even thought I might read her a little King James. I'd heard it was good literature, although it was the first Bible I ever read, and I never remembered it quite like that. Nevertheless, I took the book down and did that thing religious people sometimes do: I let it fall open at a random page and looked to see what I had drawn.

There before we was a story about Moses and Aaron telling their sister Miriam to shut her mouth because she was a woman. In a literary way, of course.

I decided then and there, that my kid was getting the toned down version and I certainly wasn't going to have her plough through the various obscenities and disgraces to civilization she would find in that book.

This is the thing, dear religious people. Your book is really, deeply and horribly offensive to the beliefs and values of other people, but it is tolerated, because freedom of speech is tolerated.

Now, it's going to be October in about one minute, here we go.

'I'll believe in evolution when I see a cat turn into a dog'

Well, here you are then.

This post is dedicated to the spotted hyena, the most liminal mammal alive, just because I'm into liminality at the moment. Hyenas have often been compared to wild dogs, wolves, jackals and other members of the canine family. Everyone agrees they kind of look and behave like dogs, but they're actually more closely related to cats. They belong in a taxonomic sub-order with the pretty name of feliformia which includes hyenas, cats, civets and mongooses.

Hyena Standoff.jpg
"Hyena Standoff" by Maureen Lunn - Hyena StandoffUploaded by Mariomassone. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

But spotted hyenas don't stop there. They blow our minds still further by being full-on gender-benders at least if they're female. Not only is their clitoris enlarged into what looks like a penis, they even have a fake scrotum. Copulation is a bit fiddly for them, birth even more so, since they have to do all that stuff via the long pseudo-penis. They do pay a price for it, with a rather high maternal mortality and first pups who are more likely to die than not. Even if two pups survive birth, one sibling will often kill the other. On the other hand, surviving female pups of the most masculinized (and agressive) females rise to the top of the group hierarchy, get the most mating rights, generally boss everyone around and have lots of masculinized female pups in their turn. Males tend to do better in the mating market by behaving submissively.

Humans have often responded to this boundary-breaking by despising hyenas. Many African societies have not thought highly of them, European big game hunters found them too ugly to bother with (good survival trait there!). Not many people like their habit of eating anything they can kill or find, starting with human corpses. Being obvious 'hermaphrodites' makes matters worse, but at least no one paid much attention to the cat/dog thing until recently. With all that negativity, it's nice to find one positive appraisal:
Among the Korè cult of the Bambara people in Mali, the belief that spotted hyenas are hermaphrodites appears as an ideal in-between in the ritual domain. The role of the spotted hyena mask in their rituals is often to turn the neophyte into a complete moral being by integrating his male principles with femininity.
'His' male principles, huh? Could it be that being a 'complete moral being' is a guy thing with the Bambara people? Since I have no clue, I'll have to give them the benefit of the doubt for now. And that would be about enough of hyenas, except the Tanzanian ones are irresistible.
In the culture of the Mbugwe in Tanzania, the spotted hyena is linked to witchcraft. According to Mbugwe folklore, every witch possesses one or more hyenas, which are referred to as "night cattle" and are branded with an invisible mark. It is said that all hyenas are owned by witches, and that truly wild hyenas are non-existent. Lactating female spotted hyenas are said to be milked by their owners every night to make hyena butter, and are further used as mounts. When a witch acquires a hyena mount, he rides it to distant lands in order to bewitch victims and return safely home before morning.

You might be interested in:
How witchcraft belief in contemporary Africa is not nearly as fun as that sounds
The Norse god Loki and liminality of various kinds

Monday, 29 September 2014

Loki breaks

It's really nice when books you're reading come through and give you what you need when you need it. Over here, we are suffering from outbreaks of institutional xenophobia (again), such that it's hard to find much magic in life. But, I started reading Joanne Harris's Gospel of Loki with my daughter again, and here is what it delivered:
Nine little stitches, that's all it took for me to suddenly realize the truth: that whatever I did, whatever I risked, however much I tried to fit in, I would never be one of them. I would never have a hall, or earn the respect I so clearly deserved. I would never be a god; only ever a dog on a chain. Oh, I might be of use to them now and then, but as soon as the current crisis was done, it would be back to the kennel for Your Humble Narrator, and without as much as a biscuit.

I'm telling you this so you'll understand why I did the things I did. I think you'll agree I had no choice; it was the only way I could retain the little self-respect I had. There's such purity in revenge, unlike those other emotions I'd had to endure in Odin's world. Envy, hatred, sorrow, fear, remorse, humiliation - all of them messy and painful and quite spectacularly pointless - but now as I discovered revenge, it was almost like being home again.

Home. See how they corrupted me? This time, with nostalgia, that most toxic of their emotions. And perhaps with some self-pity as well, as I started to think of all the things I'd given up to join them: my primal Aspect; my place with Surt; my Chaotic Incarnation. Not that Surt would have understood of cared for my belated remorse - that too was the product of their pernicious influence. Hence my hunger for revenge, not because I expected a reconciliation with Chaos - not then - but because the urge to destroy was really all I had left.
Well, quite. Now I'm done letting off vicarious steam, I'll admit that I don't think much of Loki's choices even though I get them. It can be a fine line between justice and revenge, given that his complaints are broadly accurate, but someone who fails to recognize its existence is broken. In narratively interesting ways, if they're Loki. It's a brilliant book, by the way, and lots of it is also very amusing. It's another exploration of Loki's status as a liminal being. I suppose a character could be super-liminally interesting by exploring that boundary between revenge and justice, but that's wasn't Loki and Joanne Harris's book adheres pretty closely to the original mythology.

You might also be interested in:

Thor and Gender
Gender transgression, magic and warfare in Nordic societies

An angel and the head of a pin

I wrote this on my weekend break, in the north-east of England where it tends to the sunnier, population and traffic levels are down to the kind of thing I was used to in rural France and I have time to appreciate art.

I saw the Angel of the North for the first time today. It's right on the A1, but somehow, whenever I've come up this way since it's been in place, I've used public transport. It's a very moving statue, no wonder so many people love it. Something about its proportions challenges the camera (though not the eye) but I like it like this, with its wing spread over a group of people:

The angel is really special, but I was thinking, as I drove up, why an angel? Its creator, Anthony Gormley, said this:
Why an angel? The only response I can give is that no-one has ever seen one and we need to keep imagining them. The Angel has three functions - firstly a historic one to remind us that below this site coal miners worked in the dark for two hundred years, secondly to grasp hold of the future expressing our transition from the industrial to the information age, and lastly to be a focus for our hopes and fears.

This is really special as well. Willard Wigan was on Operation Stonehenge, giving his expert opinion on how (or who? children?) might have been making minuscule bronze age gold ornaments found near Stonehenge. What Wigan does in the world or miniature ornaments is just... WOW! although he's no longer a minor and uses a very fancy microscope.

It's not so much the meaning of the figures he makes which is exceptional, its the ostentatious display of virtuoso craftsmanship that's such an incredibly human thing to do. I find both these pieces of art incredibly moving in their own way, but coming at me so close together like that, the contrast between them, the monumental and the miniature affected me very much as well and really got me thinking about the monumental and the miniature in writing.

In the end I decided to spare the world my philosophical cogitations on the subject and limit myself to informing you that I've decided to indulge in a little twitterature, while I finish writing a six-part fantasy series which has life, the universe and everything as its underlying themes. Like this, see:
Here is the history of the universe, the course of history, a human life, a life event, observed in the reflection of a petal in a dewdrop.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Neolithic hairstyles and fashions

It's odd how prehistoric people are all too often presented to us in modern-day reconstructions like those in the frankly brilliant Operation Stonehenge. I must admit it, the thing which stretches my skeptical credibility to the uttermost is being asked to believe that the builders of Stonehenge, with their priests, geometers and astronomers, their 'architect, surveyor and builder', their wide-ranging trade routes and shipping capabilities, these sophisticated people, were apparently not capable of combing their hair, washing their faces, or even smartening up their leather loincloths by trimming the edges and adding ornamentation.

I know it's impossible to guess their 'fashion sense' when we have so little evidence for its details, but they had one. As far as I know, there has been no recorded human society in which people did not style their hair and ornament themselves. And these were people with a complex and sophisticated social structure.

It's odd. We live so much surrounded by their remains there are times you could think they were still with us. And then you realize how much we're having to make up - or avoid making up - by letting them appear as stereotypical primitives of a kind which our species doesn't turn out, practically by definition.

Stonehenge and the Blood-Stones of Amesbury

This post is all about exceptional natural phenomena, and how they can drive the ritual activities of a region over many millennia. Maybe.

Completely by chance I began watching the BBC's new series Operation Stonehenge, and it is brilliant! Seriously, I totally recommend it. Excellent archaeological coverage is one of the things Britain should be famous for across the planet. As usual, I'm gob-smacked by what modern archaeology can do. Move over ley-lines, this is neuro-imaging for the earth itself. So much of Operation Stonehenge is amazing, I don't even know where to begin. I want to watch it a dozen times.

One of the things which fascinated me most deeply came early on and is dated to the earliest period of occupation during the Mesolithic era, around 10,000 years ago. Archaeologist David Jacques speculated that an exceptional natural phenomenon observed by the earliest humans may be at the root of the area's significance.

For a start, it seems there was a natural clearing which turns into a funnel of the type used by hunters of herding animals, always and everywhere, to trap their prey en masse. In this case, the prey was the Aurochs, an extinct species of huge wild cattle. There is some evidence that people gathered from far and wide for Aurochs hunts and feasts.

So far so good. This is normal and expected hunter-gatherer stuff. The fascinating part is that near this hunting ground is a spring, and the flints from that spring, if exposed to the air for a few hours, turn a color you might call pink, magenta or even fuschia. Jacques says it wasn't a common color in the lives of prehistoric hunter gatherers, but I swear, the first thing I thought when I saw it (and I was deeply impressed, by the way), was: blood... blood and butchered flesh. Hunks of meat, organs. That's what the pink flint looks like.

It is easy, very, very easy, to speculate about what these flints may have meant to Aurochs hunters, although the phenomenon is actually caused by a rare algae in the spring water. Not far from the stream, the Mesolithic people erected three tall, totem-pole-like stones, the first ritual structure known in the area, a couple of thousand years before Stonehenge really got started.

Although this is astonishing stuff, I do have some questions for the archaeologists. First, there has been significant climate change since that period. We're talking about a time when Britain was not separated from the continent. Since then, the climate warmed, sea levels rose.Why should I believe that these algae were in situ ten thousand years ago? Okay, I guess I'll just have to believe you've done due diligence here.

Second, why should I believe the pink flints have anything much to do with Stonehenge? You say there was a big gap, during which nothing much seems to have happened. The henge monuments aren't built in relation to the stream particularly, whereas they are quite convincingly connected with solar astronomy. If the people who created Stonehenge used these 'magic stones' for any purpose, it hasn't been brought to our attention. Correlation doesn't equal causation, at least not directly. Is the implication only that a high intensity (and density?) of use in Mesolithic times prompted dense and intense usage of the site later on - while meanings, possibly, changed completely?

None of this alters the fact that the pink flints are a rare and amazing natural phenomenon and were surely interpreted in a magical way by the early people who first observed them.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Preparation for Book #2: Roughing out the plot

While I gather my notes for Book #2, I'm also beginning to muse on the plot. It would be false to say I don't have a vague idea of what will be happen in it. I have lots of ingredients:
  1. The original inspiration - core scenes which have been in my head since the very beginning.
  2. Since my series of books is designed around an exploration of the world: an itinerary, which for practical reasons will be based on my own travels though there is definitely room for flexibility.
  3.  Since the series is also designed around an exploration of human culture and history: a range of themes to cover. I've already researched most of the ones I intend to use though I may add more if the plot requires it.
  4. Stuff inherited from Book #1, not only the main characters, but the inevitable development of the situation on which Book #1 ended (I hate cliff-hangers at the end of books, but I still planted a lot of what will eventually turn out to be foreshadowing).
  5. The knowledge of where I want my characters to be by the time I hit Book #3.
That's a lot of information, but it's not a story. What I hopefully also have is more experience of what I need to turn it into one, and a minimum standard in the shape of Book #1.

Right now, I'm messing with the bits, sorting them, fitting them against various plot structures, diving into my bag of stories and mythologies for anything that might be useful, pinning bits together when I detect resonances between them and so on. It's a bit like building Frankenstein's monster: at the moment I have one leg and a head and a terrible feeling that I might end up having to sew them together for want of anything else. Eventually, I need something that looks fully-formed, smooth and inevitable. It will take a while but I do have the definite sense that it's going faster than Book #1.

Preparation for Book #2: Gathering notes

Book #2 is set in Oceania: the Pacific, Australia and New Zealand. Even when a novel is set in the real world, world-building applies and mine relies heavily on notes and photographs I've taken during my travels. 

Unfortunately, the ones for Book #2 were made at least three years ago (+ a few stories from a trip ten years ago). All of them are now scattered and mixed up with other stuff, across numerous files on a laptop which is breathing its last, and all over the Internet. My first long and grueling task is to bring them together and sort them out. When I'm done, I expect to have 20,000 to 25,000 words, none of which will be usable directly, but most of which will eventually get recycled into the story.

Monday, 8 September 2014

One Who Walks with the Stars: her name

As you can see in my original post on One Who Walks with the Stars, she appears under various names in the documentation. Maine calls her 'Walks with Stars Woman' and Miller prefers 'Woman-Who-Walks-with-the-Stars'. Capitals, hyphens and word order vary, and these days we tend to leave out gender but that's all just so many translation issues.

Walks with the Stars original name was in Lakota. I wasn't sure how to translate it, but the internet being fantastic, I discovered the name of a contemporary Lakota woman named Wichapi Ob Mani Winyan. I think this must be the correct translation based on Wichapi-Star, Mani-Walk and Winyan-Woman. Perhaps she's named for the One Who Walks with the Stars of Little Big Horn fame.

The words 'woman' and 'walk' or 'walker' are quite common in 19th century Lakota names, but 'star' wasn't so much, even though star quilts and blankets became common since. Walks with the Stars sounds like the prettiest girls' name you could imagine but stars didn't always get a particularly good rap in Lakota culture. They were a long, long way from having their Old World astrological meanings, or even, rather to my surprise, being considered as navigational aids. Ringing Shield explained them at length to James Walker in 1903, p.114:
A wise man said this. The stars are wakan. They do not care for the earth or anything on it. They have nothing to do with mankind. Sometimes they come to the world and sometimes the Lakotas go to them. There are many stories told of these things. No medicine can be made to the stars. They have nothing to do with anything that moves and breathes. A holy man knows about them. This must not be told to the people. If the people knew these things, they would pull the stars from above. There is one star for the evening and one for the morning.One star never moves and it is wakan. Other stars move in a circle about it. They are dancing in the dance circle.

 There are seven stars. This is why there are seven council fires among the Lakotas. Sometimes there are many stars and sometimes there are not so many. When there are not so many, the others are asleep. The spirit way is among the stars. This moves about so that bad spirits can not find it. Wakan Tanka begins at the edge of the world. No man can find it. Taku Skanskan is there and he tells the good spirits where to go to find the beginning of this trail. The bad spirits must wander always on the trail of the winds. The stars hide from the sun. They must fear him. So mankind should not try to learn about them. It is not good to talk about them. It is not good to fight by the light of the stars. They must be evil for they fear the sun.

We should remember that by 1903, Lakota culture had been intensely affected by white America. Walker's informants were usually older men specifically chosen for their memories of traditional culture, but some of Ringing Shield's emphasis may be a response to white ideas about astrology which came through in Walker's questioning. All the same, I have another reference which says something similar, but more briefly.

Anyway, since names were often acquired or changed at various points in a Lakota person's life and since they often had meanings, sometimes humorous ones, I did begin to wonder if being called One Who Walks with the Stars was analogous to being called something like Head in the Clouds. Or perhaps she sleep-walked! But that's a lot more than I know for sure.

If anyone can tell me more, that would be fantastic.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Weekly roundup

  • Here I am, at the start of my month-long writing retreat and I have to admit it, I'm still struggling to get back into writing (#1, #2). I managed to do one scene for Manuscript in Progress which lived up to my expectations of my narrator's voice, but only by a combination of graft, strategy and experience. It's a bit like faking the work of an writer you know really, really well. Hopefully all this will change next week.
  • My strategy for the one accomplished scene, consisted of dealing with a long complicated series of dialogs during which everything changes, as though it were a fight scene. It was going to be one of those standoffs you get in Chinese movies, with six different characters duking it out in a clearing. Their words were going to manifest as spiritual weapons like those of Hindu gods, ripping through the air and tearing into the psyche of their victim. But since I am European, it ended up being more of an air raid-type situation followed by a series of nasty encounters in dark alleys.
  • I started writing about fictional personality tests, just for fun (#1, #2), then got sidetracked by essential research on One Who Walks with the Stars (#1, #2). It's going so well, it's hard not to get obsessive about it.
  • I'm gearing up to do more work on Wikipedia. The Stonehenge thing was just a trial run.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

One Who Walks with the Stars: Crow Dog's wife

Crow Dog.jpg
"Crow Dog" via Wikimedia Commons.

I said in my last post there was a mystery surrounding the life of One Who Walks with the Stars, the Lakota woman who killed two of Custer's men at Little Big Horn.  Here it is: whenever One Who Walks with the Stars is discussed, she's invariably referred to as Crow Dog's wife.

Crow Dog is the guy in the photograph, a fairly well-known minor chief of the Lakota, who turns up at most of the major events in their history throughout the second half of the nineteenth century. There is even a supreme court decision named after him, Ex parte Crow Dog. It's an interesting case which must have displeased Crow Dog in more ways than I have space to mention right now, but it offers rare insight into the life of his wife: there is a complaint that she was not allowed to testify on his behalf in court.

This is the point. If I want to learn about the little-documented life of One Who Walks with the Stars, I could follow the career of her more famous husband and it would give me an idea of where she was and what might be happening to her. It might even provide me with photographs of the Crow Dog family, like this one.

Taken in 1890, by Grabill. Based on the 1887 census* for Crow Dog's family the photograph may include Cooks the Pot (52), Leaves Her Rock (45), Ugly Woman (23, an adult daughter), either White Woman or Lightning (both 8-9), Crow Dog (57), Log (5) and other younger children not recorded in 1887. Then again, it may not.
Taken in 1890, in the aftermath of Wounded Knee. This photograph appears to show the same family, plus a couple of extra children, possibly Lightning as well as White Woman this time (8-9) and Thunder Comes Out (13). According to my second hand report of the 1887 census Crow Dog's family then consisted of himself, two wives, one adult daughter, three daughters aged between 13 and 5 and four sons aged between 12 and 2. That child would have been 5 when this photograph was taken. It would seem that Crow Dog's 1st wife was deceased by 1887*.

Now, here is the problem. Although every source on One Who Walks with the Stars says she was Crow Dog's wife, pretty much every source I've found on Crow Dog says his wives were Good Home, Cook Her (or Cooks the Pot or possibly Catches Her) and one other, given in the 1887 census* as Leaves Her Rock, though I've also seen Jumping Elk mentioned. One name which never comes up is One Who Walks with the Stars.
Actually, not quite never. I've found one note which says she was the first wife of Jerome Crow Dog, Crow Dog's eldest son, who was born c.1853. Here is a quote which may attest to the confusion between the two men... at any rate, it attests to confusion.
According to Leonard**, Crow Dog took the name Kangi Shunka Manitou after his first fight with enemies. It means Crow Coyote, not Crow Dog, but an interpreter translated it wrongly and the name stuck. Later at the reservation a census taker gave him the Christian name Jerome, so he´s also known as Jerome Crow Dog in official records.
It does seem clear that by the later 19th century, 'Crow Dog' was functioning like a European family name, so you find lots of people called 'Mary Crow Dog', 'Alexander Crow Dog'. They may be Crow Dog's descendents or spouses of his descendents. Contemporaries of Crow Dog's eldest son(s), like the men who told the story of Walks with the Stars to Miller in the mid-20th century, may have got used to referring to them simply as Crow Dog by then.

At any rate the answer to the mystery makes a difference as far as One Who Walks with the Stars is concerned. Imagine you want to write the story of her engagement at Little Big Horn. On the one hand, you have Crow Dog's wife, probably born before 1840, a mature woman with adult children and little ones to worry about on the field of battle, on the other, his newly married daughter-in-law, probably under 20 and perhaps still childless.

I expect only the census* can shed light on this matter and even then, without recorded births and deaths, with name changes and varying translations, it may not be easy.

 Sources and footnotes: 
*The 1887 census for Rosebud can be viewed here. Crow Dog was in the Brule #2 band, under the letter C.
**This refers to Leonard Crow Dog, author of Crow Dog: Four Generations of Sioux Medicine Men, and a great-grandson or possibly great-great grandson of the Crow Dog in the photographs.
 - Most of my original leads come from this page. There are still several things here which I haven't tracked down to source.

Note: if I find out any of the information in this page is wrong (very likely) I will update it.

Friday, 5 September 2014

One Who Walks with the Stars at Little Big Horn: the sources

One Who Walks with the Stars was an Oglala Lakota woman recorded as having killed two of Custer's soldiers during the Battle of Little Big Horn on 25 June 1876. She's also a secondary character in my novel. Since I've been writing about women warriors, I decided to post about my research process which has been long and uncertain.

A quick synopsis of the lead-up to the Battle of Little Big Horn may not be amiss. Basically, the Great Sioux Reservation was established in 1868, but by 1876 it was already under encroachment by white gold miners and settlers. Meanwhile, in the summer of 1876 a large group of Sioux from many tribes had gathered outside reservation land, apparently as part of an annual summer buffalo hunt. The group included whole families, so when Custer attacked women like One Who Walks with the Stars inevitably found themselves on the field of battle. This may have been central to Custer's plan: the Wikipedia article on Little Big Horn makes much of the idea that he expected to take the women and children hostage while the warriors were away. This would force the warriors' surrender and enable Custer to escort them all back to their reservations. As the warriors' were in the village things didn't go according to plan. For the attack, Custer's troops divided into two groups, with Custer leading his men nearest to where One Who Walks with the Stars was encamped. This was the section of the village beside the river, and Custer approached it along the opposite bank. The battle which ensued was undoubtedly chaotic, and very few people will claim we can get an accurate picture of everything that transpired.

I believe there are only two published sources for One Who Walks with the Stars' engagement at Little Big Horn. The first is in Lone Eagle the White Sioux, by Floyd Shuster Maine (1956), pp.128-9. Unfortunately, I can't justify ordering this book from abroad right now, and it isn't available to me any other way. If anyone has it, and would like to let me know what it says on pp.128-9, I would be super-grateful. In the meantime, I have to make do with this report from Richard Hardorff's Lakota Recollections of the Custer Fight.
Sioux and Cheyenne reported the presence of several women who participated in the assault on Custer's force. One of these was Hunkpapa, Moving Robe Woman, who avenged the death of her younger brother by slaying several of Custer's troopers; see Charles A. Eastman, "Rain-in-the-Face," The Outlook (October 27, 1906); 511; and also Floyd S. Maine, Lone Eagle... The White Sioux (Albuquerque, 1956), pp.128-29, which recounts the exploits of Walks with Stars Woman, the wife of the Oglala, Crow Dog.
As a bonus for those who are interested in Sioux woman warriors, this page has extracts on the subject from Bruce Brown's 100 Voices.

The other source for One Who Walks with the Stars is in Custer's Fall by David Humphrey Miller (1957), pp.156-8, and I have it in full. To begin with, here is what he says about his own sources:
Woman-Who-Walks-With-The-Stars actually did better at Little Big Horn than her husband, Crow Dog, who succeeded only in capturing three badly shot-up cavalry horses. Her story was told to me in 1941 by Hollow Horn Eagle and Brave Bird, both Bighorn survivors.
Since the event he recounts had no other surviving witnesses, the original story must have come from One Who Walks with the Stars herself. It's likely Hollow Horn Eagle or Brave Bird heard about it soon after it happened from Walks with the Stars or one of her close relatives. When you read Miller's version, you'll see that it's incredibly fictionalized for a history book. At least half of it is given over to speculations as to what was going through Walks with the Stars' head at the time of the killing. You'll also see that it only describes the killing of one soldier so either Maine describes two killings, or his story is sufficiently different from this one to justify attributing two separate deaths to Walks with the Stars. Miller's story is accompanied by an illustration captioned 'Crow Dog's wife killing the last of Custer's command' a probably unverifiable honor he or his sources granted to Walks with the Stars.
In thick timber on the banks of the Little Big Horn near the Brulé camp, Woman-Who-Walks-with-the-Stars wandered, looking for stray cavalry horses. Since the now dead soldiers on the ridge had turned their mounts loose, many of the thirsty chargers had been rambling through the brush, trying to get to water. As the wife of Crow Dog, ranking Brulé chief in the village, Woman-Who-Walks-with-the-Stars well knew the value the big, sturdy horses would assume now the fighting was over. During the kill-talks and honor giveaways which were sure to follow such a great victory, nothing would add more to her husband's prestige than gifts of fine horses to chiefs of other tribes.

Suddenly a flash of dusty blue caught the woman's eye. There in a thicket close to the water crawled a man - a uniformed white soldier. Badly wounded, he was struggling through the undergrowth to get to the river's edge. As he inched along the ground, the woman saw he was carrying a carbine. For some reason he was trying to get back across the river, though he seemed at times too weak to crawl any further.

Every so often he was forced to stop creeping and lay panting a while until he could build up strength again. At last he was near enough to the water to push his carbine over the bank. While he lay prostrate, weary from his last exertion, Woman-Who-Walks-with-the-Stars picked up a heavy branch of deadwood. For a moment she watched the soldier curiously. White men always seemed so strange with their hairy faces and bodies and their pink skin. She found herself wondering what their women were like, for she had only seen pioneer women at a great distance, when they were cloaked in mother hubbards and sun bonnets. Perhaps a white woman loved this very soldier. A strange tenderness swept over Crow Dog's wife.

The soldier stirred a little. Dragging himself along again, he slipped over the bank's edge and plunged into hip deep water. Watching him, the softness left the eyes of Woman-Who-Walks-with-the-Stars. After all, the soldiers had come attacking. Women, even children, would not have been spared by them, for had not entire Cheyenne families been wiped out by the soldiers in the south? It was always whites who were the aggressors, seeking to destroy Pte, the sacred buffalo uncle of the Sioux, crowding the Indians out of the land Wakan Tanka had given them. Taking a tighter grip on the driftwood club, Woman-Who-Walks-with-the-Stars moved swiftly to the river's edge, where the soldier now saw her for the first time. Stark terror widened his eyes. A hoarse scream started in his throat. But his cry was lost under the loud crash of driftwood about his head and shoulders. In a little while he sank beneath the surface as the woman kept striking at the roiled water where his head had been.

It was slightly past mid-afternoon. Less than a half-hour had passed since Custer's fall at the ford. During that brief interim, the two hundred fifteen members of his command had been wiped out to a man.
That's not quite all I've got on One Who Walks with the Stars, but it's the complete documentation of her life as a warrior. It turns out there is more mystery surrounding her life that I would have imagined. In future posts, I'll try to clear up some of it (success not guaranteed).

Writing tips in practice: get the support of your nearest and dearest

In my family, support doesn't take the form of a cozy cocoon of unconditional pink fluffy stuff. It's more of a training ground for real life experience. Yesterday for example, my dear husband carried out the following support activities:
  1. Asked for the n-thousandth time when Manuscript in Progress will be finished so we can go on holiday with the proceeds of the book sales! No pressure of any sort, right? I showed him the eBook I made for my own purposes, to prove that there is indeed a book.
  2. Spent five minutes criticising my choice of title. To prove I had good reason for choosing it, I showed him the blurb I'd written a few days earlier.
  3. Started reading through the blurb, got interrupted by two phone calls and stopped half way through. Asked the meaning of the latin expression I thought had passed into common speech. On discovering the reason behind the title, questioned whether I was really writing about what I said I was writing about. This has to be a pretty good match for the real world, doesn't it?  AND - it's an important 'and' - at least the blurb made him laugh a couple of times. Yay!
  4. Complained that I was going away to work on Manuscript in Progress instead of staying home to keep him company, after one of the phone calls informed him he won't have clearance to start his new job for another few weeks.
I'm afraid I did it anyway. I wonder how I'm going to cope all by myself...

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Stonehenge and shadows in the soil

Sometimes I do a bit of editing of this or that on Wikipedia. This evening I had the thrill of being the person who changed this sentence on the Stonehenge article:
Unless some of the sarsens (the big upstanding stones) have since been removed from the site, the ring appears to have been left incomplete. 

to this one:
It was thought the ring might have been left incomplete, but an exceptionally dry summer in 2013 revealed patches of parched grass which may correspond to the location of removed sarsens.

It's should be old news really, but it was only just reported in the Guardian. I'm completely fascinated by the archaeology we can do just by looking at the shades of disappeared structures expressed as soil colour, fertility, water retention. Even more amazing is the way it only 'works' at certain seasons and under certain conditions. Just like real magic!

Despite Wikipedia's reputation, I always feel the same way when I edit one of its articles: terrified lest I make an error, amused to discover the Stonehenge article is on partial lockdown (though I seem to have some ill-deserved regular editor status), annoyed at the hideous interface, and wry about the fact that my reference was longer than the sentence it justified.

Fictional personality tests: phrenology and physionomy

First some definitions: Phrenology is a 19th century pseudoscience, much used to justify racist and sexist ideas about people's abilities and character by a process which involved fondling their skulls. Physiognomy, the analysis of personality based on appearance, is older since it dates back at least to ancient Greece, but of equally dubious validity. People have mistrusted it for centuries and other people have gone on using it regardless.

18th and 19th century authors made much of their physionomic character studies, but I prefer to quote from a revival, Susanna Clarke's fantasy, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, set in 18th century Britain. Here is Childermass, whose presence as a secondary character runs through the novel:
He was a dark sort of someone, a not-quite-respectable someone who was regarding Mr Segundus and Dr Foxcastle with an air of great interest. His ragged hair hung about his shoulders like a fall of black water; he had a strong, thin face with something twisted in it, like a tree root; and a long, thin nose; and, though his skin was very pale, something made it seem a dark face - perhaps it was the darkness of the eyes, or the proximity of that long, black greasy hair.
I expect anyone can tell Childermass's appearance is being used to arouse our suspicions against him. The racial stereotyping may be less obvious to anyone unfamiliar with 18th and 19th century discourse on British ethnicities. I've read enough to recognise a representation of the supposed Celtic type, dark-haired and eyed, 'sallow' of skin, a supposed remnant of a primitive and inferior race, clinging on to the margins of British society after invasion by those who considered themselves the British mainstream. Yeah, that's what they thought. As the Wikipedia article on phrenology notes, the pseudoscience of phrenology never really took off in Ireland, due to ...
...not only the Vatican's decree that phrenology was subversive of religion and morality but also that based on phrenology the 'Irish Catholics were sui generis a flawed and degenerate breed'
Now we've pretty much abandoned our belief in physiognomy and its offshoot, phrenology, an author's 'drawing' of their characters' appearance tends to be more cursory. Here is one from another book I read this year, the introduction of the Marquis de Carabas in Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere.
He wore a huge dandyish black coat that was not quite a frock coat nor exactly a trenchcoat, and high black boots, and, beneath his coat, raggedy clothes. His eyes burned white in an extremely dark face. And he grinned white teeth, momentarily, as if at a private joke of his own, and bowed to Richard, and said, 'De Carabas, at your service, and you are...?'
In the 20th century, De Carabas expresses his personality through his choice of clothes, his expressions and patterns of speech. Some cursory details of his appearance are given, but if you blink, you may miss the fact that he is supposed to be black. I've talked to people who did. It's an awkward situation because the inclusion of racially diverse characters was obviously a goal of Neverwhere, the TV series, and all they had to do was cast appropriately. With nothing but words to work with, the novel simply can't harp on about Carabas's appearance - the shape and colour of his face isn't supposed to tell us anything essential about him, and would almost inevitably come out sounding racist.

Getting back into writing #2 - Make an explicit plan

I'm still not writing, I'm in the throes of Back-to-School organisation. All I did is make a bit of time to look at my manuscript and decide what to tackle first.

This is what Manuscript in Progress looks like at the moment:

1st 'quarter' - c. 20,000 words, finished
2nd 'quarter' - c. 30,000 words, finished except for some details at the very end
3rd 'quarter' - c. 30,000 words, needs serious editing, especially a central scene
4th 'quarter' - c. 16,000 words, rough draft stage

I decided to work backwards from the end, hopefully bringing the 4th quarter up to 20,000 beautifully polished words. At the same time, I'll be working on that central scene of the 3rd quarter which is a very big deal in many ways and may expand well beyond 5,000 words. I don't plan to let the 3rd quarter grow beyond it's current size. Instead, I'll be editing and rewriting ruthlessly, not because I'm fixated on some artificial word count issue but because the 3rd quarter has special needs which haven't been met yet. There's a) the dominance of that central scene, b) the speed at which things move, c) some major but temporary changes in my narrator's voice and d) the insertion of an external document. I've got it all in draft form, but it's a tough writing proposition and I need more time to mull it over. Here is a quote by Nicole Kornher-Stace from Jeff Vandermeer's Wonderbook, which illustrates how I feel about the 3rd quarter:
I wrote 150 pages when I was too inexperienced to do justice to a project as complex as a 17th-century unreliable narrator novel with three parallel storylines and a complete five-act play embedded in it.
My hope is that by the time I've finished the 4th quarter I'll be much more experienced! Yeah... So, I'm working from the end, which means I particularly need to make sure I remember everything that comes before. I really need that re-reading project now. I should probably even make notes while I'm doing it - a far more useful activity than mindless editing!

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Getting back into writing #1 - Remembering What I'm Supposed to be Writing About

Subtitled 'OMG, I Just Created an Ebook!!!'

After three weeks of not writing, my first and biggest problem is to get back into the story. I have a really hard time recapturing voice but I also forget important things about the story shape and lots of little details I should know. And here's the crunch: if I start reading it in Scrivener, I'll get caught up in editing. You know the kind of editing where you sit around altering the shape of a sentence, then put it back again, then try a new shape and so on, and on, for hours. I just won't be able to stop myself. I could easily blow the whole of September just editing what I wrote so far. Since my levels of self-discipline are inadequate to the task of stopping myself, I really need my draft in a format which just won't let me do that. I'm astonished at how easy it turned out to be.


There's more than one way of doing this, but in my case, I started with Scrivener on my computer, containing the Manuscript in Progress, OverDrive on my iPad, containing a bunch of library books, and a Dropbox account.


I followed these instructions for compiling an ePub document in Scrivener. Well actually, I followed about 10% of these instructions, since I didn't care how dirty my new book turned out to be so long as it was readable. It was so easy, I couldn't believe it.


I saved my new eBook in my Dropbox account and waited for it to sync. Yeah, it's kind of slow around here.


I followed these instructions for getting my new eBook into Scrivener. Basically, all I had to do was navigate to my Dropbox account in Safari, click on the ePub file and choose 'Open in OverDrive' when asked.


And there was my book, sitting around in OverDrive next to a bunch of fancy real books with well-known authors! I opened it, and it looked good. Surprisingly good. Who knew it could possibly ever be so easy? I seriously thought it would take me all morning to figure this out!


Now I'm all set to read Manuscript in Progress on the train without any possibility of tweaking it. That will be a new kind of experience for sure!

Monday, 1 September 2014

Fictional personality tests: magic swords and sorting hats

Life was much simpler, Way Back When. The Sword of Rhydderch Hael and the Coat of Padarn Beisrudd knew whether a man was well-born. The Cauldron of Dyrnwch the Giant and the Whetstone of Tudwal Tuglyd could distinguish the brave from the cowardly and only worked for the former.  The Mantle of Tegau Gold-Breast could tell if a woman was chaste. That was about all you needed to know about people.

So when and where was Way Back When? These magical objects, among a total of Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain, were first recorded in late medieval times though they're invariably attributed to the British 'dark ages'. Perhaps they reflect the qualities 8th century Britons wanted to see in each other. I wouldn't be surprised to learn they belonged to the realm of fantasy fiction from the start, and represented what late medieval Britons liked to see in their knightly romances.

Nobody tells us how the magical personality tests are supposed to work or why we should believe them. I suppose to some extent they relate to potentially observable facts: a man's parents may be unknown but they are who they are, he has or hasn't behaved bravely in battle, a woman has or hasn't respected the sexual mores of her culture. All the objects had to do was sense their user's past actions. Or we might suppose a person's entire being was pure or tainted in accordance with these facts. To the right object, a pure spirit might transmit enhancing energy, while a taint would spoil its effectiveness like rot or rust. At some point, our culture certainly invented the idea that virtue can have physical effects, but for all I know, it might have been any time in the last millennium and a half.

As soon as I discovered the Magical Treasures I thought of the Hogwarts Sorting Hat in Harry Potter. The Hat reads students' personalities by magic and assigns them to one of four houses accordingly: courage (Griffindor), cleverness (Ravenclaw), loyalty (Hufflepuff) and ambition (Slytherin).

We still don't get to see how it figures out these essential traits or accumulations of past choices but at least we get to hear it thinking so we know it doesn't work by contagion from the wearer. What do we imagine the Hat senses in eleven-year olds and how? At least it listens to them, a bit like a telephathic school psychologist. I'm sure I wasn't the only adult who felt uncomfortable with the way Slytherin children were selected for 'baddy' status (no matter how many euphemisms their 'qualities' are cloaked in), then placed in a situation which reinforced negative traits.

Unfortunately their plight is the point of the exercise, because although the Sorting Hat provides colour to the British boarding school tradition of houses, it's mainly a pretext for signalling which characters are protagonists (Griffindors, with all the good qualities nominally attributed to all four houses), and antagonists (Slytherins, unpleasant). The kids in the other houses are just there as extras. By using the Hat, Rowling did run a risk of producing super-flat characters but she got round it by mostly ignoring it except to dump lots of real-world complexity squarely on its poor old rim. It's quite comical watching it struggle with borderline cases, student preferences, personality transformations and plain old mistakes. That's what happens to an old-fashioned magical personality test lost in the modern world of psychological complexity.