Sunday, 31 July 2005

Regency slang term of the day:
To show the lions and the tombs - to point out the particular curiosities of any place, to act the ciceroni: an allusion to Westminster Abbey and the Tower, where the tombs and lions are shown

Divine Monosyllable of the day:
camino oscuro
In the course of a discussion on the RNA's private mailing list I found myself rather carried away into rant mode on one of my pet subjects - the rules of English and why there are none. Always keen on the principles of recycling, I thought that I would share my thoughts here too.

I feel quite strongly that there are no universal "rules" of English. Many of the most-often quoted "rules" (not splitting infinitives, not ending sentences with prepositions) have been retrofitted to the language by the likes of Dryden in an attempt to make English fit their own ideas of how a language should work (by which is meant "just like classical Latin). The rules are not inherent in the language itself, which, after all, evolved into its modern form(s) through constant use by people who did not stop to think about underlying structure as well as by grammarians.

That is not to say that there is no such thing as good and bad writing, nor does it mean that writers should not learn the language as well as they possibly can, but what we need to learn is what works. And by "works" I mean what most effectively communicates what we want to say to our intended audience. Clumsy turns of phrase, misplaced commas and misuse of the subjunctive aren't "wrong" but they can be distracting. Distraction is the enemy. As soon as readers start noticing our use of English we have lost them.

Publishers' house styles reflect publishers' experiences of what works and what doesn't for their readers. I suspect that the house rules for HMB are not exactly the same as those for the Guardian, because they have different audiences. Each has its set of loyal readers who become used to their particular way of doing things, and who may well be distracted by a different approach.

But house styles tend to focus on the superficial details, where a concise set of guidelines can be drawn up (the Guardian stylebook is 190 pages long, Hart's Rules come in under 90 pages if you ignore the guidance on Foreign languages). No such guide is ever going to be able to set out everything there is to say about effective writing. For that we have to inhabit the language totally. This is where an author's unique voice comes from - our individual interaction with every element of the language that we use. It gives us rhythm and pace, mood and tone. Georgette Heyer evokes sadness one way, Ian Fleming does it another way. Neither is more right, nor is either closer or further away from "proper" English. It would be phenomenally difficult to explain why each writer's passage conjures up that particular emotion - it must be in the words because that is all there is, but which words?

That is why I think that the pursuit of "correct" English is a shibolleth. It doesn't - and can't - get anywhere near what really matters to me as a reader and as a writer.

I will continue to fight battles on behalf of the subjunctive, and to preserve the distinction between "disinterested" and "uninterested", not because it is morally right to do so, but because I believe that every time such a battle is lost, the language loses a little bit of its power and subtlety. In the end I don't want an English that is considered as "correct" as possible by some sort of Academy, but one that is felt to be as rich as possible by those who use it every day.

Saturday, 30 July 2005

My current wip is set in 1809, and takes place almost entirely in England. The next one will be a sequel, still set in England. At some point however I would like to write something set in France during the Revolution, simply because I love the French Revolutionary Calendar so very much.

Unlike the usual Western calendar, which is built from months cobbled together from the self-regard of Roman Emperors, a counting system that has not moved with the times, and some odd gods and festivals and days named after another ragbag of old gods and heavenly bodies, the French Revolutionary Calendar was the product of careful and logical thought by a small committee containing two mathematicians (Gaspard Monge and Gilbert Romme), two poets (Fabre d'Eglantine and Andre-Marie de Chenier) and an artist (Jacques-Louis David).

The months reflect the natural year; the fog of Brumaire gives way to the cold of Frimaire while the wind of Ventôse is followed by the sprouting of seeds in Germinal and their flowering in Floréal. We wouldn't have to worry about whether there were 30 or 31 days in each month - each month is always 30 days long.

The French Revolutionary Calendar ended each year with the month of Fructidor, the harvest month. Then came five days (or six in Leap Years) that were a universal holiday. Each day was a celebration of a different feature - Virtue, Genius, Labour, Opinion, Rewards and, every four years, Revolution.

Today would be 11 Thermidor, in the 213th year of the Calendar. So much more fun than 30 July.
Regency slang term of the day:
He has brought his hogs to a fine market - said of someone who has been remarkably successful in his affairs, and used ironically to signify the contrary.

Divine Monosyllable of the day:
flower of chivalry

Friday, 29 July 2005

In his weekly column A Week in Books the Independent's literary editor Boyd Tonkin describes Michael Dibdin as someone who, in his early books
made a nonsense of the distinction between "genre" and "literary" fiction.
Unfortunately Tonkin is less happy with Dibdin's latest, Back to Bologna. Indeed he goes so far as to say
You know that a crime writer has lost his way and his zest when a character prattles self-referentially ... about "a deconstruction of the realistic, plot-driven novel".
"A crime writer", eh? So all that stuff about making a nonsense of the distinction means what? The message is clear. When you are good you are a writer, but when you are not you're just a genre writer.
Regency slang term of the day:
Tercel-gentle - a knight or gentleman of a good estate; also any rich man.

Divine Monosyllable of the day:
I read Grumpy Old Bookman regularly, but I fear that he does not read Wenlock quite as often. If he did, he might have realised that Bookslut's recent story on Harry Potter was a hoax.

Thursday, 28 July 2005

Regency slang term of the day:
Fidlam-Bens - Thieves who steal anything they can lay hands on.

Divine Monosyllable of the day:

Wednesday, 27 July 2005

I must return to the vexing subject of side whiskers. I am currently attempting to cultivate a pair, so that when another opportunity arises for me to dress in full Regency Rig (at, say, the Jane Austen Festival in Bath) I shall be able more closely to resemble, Count Henri-Amédée-Mercure de Turenne, or perhaps Francois-Xavier Fabre's anonymous gentleman (well, one can but hope).

After a week and a bit of carefully not shaving the relevant areas the whiskers are beginning to establish themselves successfully. Unfortunately my wife has decided that, rather than giving me that essential Regency dash that sets apart the true Pink of the ton, they are beginning to make me resemble Beau Holder.

I bet George Brummell never had this problem.
Regency slang term of the day:
Muggles - Restlessness, the fidgets.

Divine Monosyllable of the day:
Maybe I'm missing something. Bookslut has a piece on a "corrected" version of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, which has allegedly been downloaded over 800,000 times and which has attracted the interest of J K Rowling's lawyers.

Bookslut sources the item to Mobylives, but seems to accept it as true. Mobylives attributes the story to The Watley Review, and, to be fair, appears to be hedging his (hers? its?) bets on authenticity. The Watley Review says of itself:
The Watley Review is dedicated to the production of articles completely without journalistic merit or factual basis, as this would entail leaving our chairs or actually working. Names, places and events are generally fictitious, except for public figures about which we may have heard something down at the pub. All contents are intended as parody and should be construed as such.
The presence in the Harry Potter piece of a quote from S O'Crates of the University of Phaedrus suggests that we are in debatable ground. Either Bookslut has failed to spot the joke, or else Jessa Crispin's irony is too subtle for me. Whichever is the case, this item has alerted me to a new source of satire on the web.

Tuesday, 26 July 2005

Regency slang term of the day:
Chosen Pells - Highwaymen who rob in pairs, in the streets and squares of London: to prevent being followed by the sound of their horses shoes on the stones, the shoe them with leather.

Divine Monosyllable of the day:
Cuckoo's Nest

Monday, 25 July 2005

Sadly, I have discovered, you can't believe everything that you read on the web. I wasn't blogging three weeks ago, so I missed the ideal date for this particular story, but if I wait until next year I'm bound to forget.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that on 4 July 1776 George III wrote in his diary "nothing important happened today". A Google search on ["George III" diary nothing happened today] brings up about 17,400 hits; it says so in Wikipedia; and every year National Public Radio in the US conclude their reading of the Declaration of Independence with the same point. So it must be authentic, no?

No. It is totally untrue. But it does have a sort of basis in fact.

George III didn't keep a diary, as far as I have been able to establish. On the other hand his contemporary, Louis XVI of France, kept a Game Book. This was a journal in which he made a note of all the birds and beasts that he hunted or shot. On 14 July 1789, having shot no game, he wrote in it "rien". The Game Book can be found in the French National Archives.

So if you ignore the function of a Game Book, and if you expand on the laconic entry, you could argue that on Bastille Day, Louis XVI wrote in his diary that nothing happened.

A good story, albeit that it takes a little bit of embellishment of the truth. Too good a story to waste on a French King perhaps? So it appears that somebody embellished it further by transferring it to another King, and another day of revolution. And because so many people wanted the story to be true, it has taken wings on the web and has penetrated all kinds of places where it really out to have been checked out.
Regency slang term of the day:
Buz-napper's Academy - A school in which young thieves were trained. Figures were dressed up, and experienced tutors stood in various difficult attitudes for the boys to practise on

Divine Monosyllable of the day:
Solution of continuity

Sunday, 24 July 2005

Over at Romancing the Blog, Lori Devoti invites debate on what counts as romance.

The Romance Writers of America are currently in the throes of updating their own definition of the term, but I feel that they are on a bit of a hiding to nothing. I've explained why in a comment on Lori's piece.
So here's the idea I was talking about yesterday.

For many broadsheet literary editors, the high point of the year is probably the Literary Festival that their newspaper sponsors. For Claire Armitstead of the Guardian it would be Hay-on-Wye, for Caroline Gascoigne at the Sunday Times it is Oxford, and for Boyd Tonkin at the Independent it used to be my own home-town happening, Cheltenham, but that now seems to have been taken on by The Times. Of course writers of commercial fiction are rarely featured at these events - indeed Howard Jacobson has pointed out (not for the first time) that it is tough enough for writers of literary fiction to compete with media celebrities.

On the other hand, many years ago stand-up comedians and unconventional theatre productions had no place at the Edinburgh International Festival. Their response was to establish the Fringe. The Fringe has subsequently grown and grown, and is now uncontested as the biggest Arts Festival in the world.

So why don't writers (and readers) of commercial fiction try something similar? Find a suitable Festival and set up a few informal events in the margins; events that do not seek to ape the grown-up delights of the established festival but that are all about fun and enjoyment - which, after all, is what we read these books for. The big bookshop chains are usually involved with the big festivals but there are still some independent bookshops out there who might be willing to support the event, if only by ordering in copies for signing.

I would love to see a number of Literary Festival Fringes, each perhaps loosely themed to a particular genre within commercial fiction. As a writer of Regency Romps, my eye is on Cheltenham for a Regency-themed fringe. Even a few informal events will take a bit of planning, and adequate publicity with little or no budget cannot be achieved overnight, so October 2005 is a little too close, but with a following wind it ought to possible to think up some things for October 2007.

What do you think?
Regency slang term of the day:
Galley-Foist - The state barge used by the Lord Mayor of London when he was sworn in at Westminster.

Divine Monosyllable of the day:
L'abricot de la jardinière

Saturday, 23 July 2005

Following on from my earlier post, I was going to use this quote from the Jojo Moyes piece in The Australian:
But being labelled a romantic novelist has its drawbacks. British broadsheet literary editors - including those on The Independent - won't review her books, even though her third, The Peacock Emporium, an inter-generational mystery saga, received blanket coverage in women's magazines.
as the jumping off point for a long and quite possibly rather dry post about the long history of disdain in which popular fiction, and fiction written for and read by women in particular, has been held. Trouble is I can't lay my hands on my copy of John Carey's The Intellectuals and the Masses, which has lots of good stuff vaguely connected to this theme. So I will hold off on that for a while. Instead, I started thinking about tackling the problem of broadsheet literary editors at its heart, and that heart is to be found, I reckon, at Literary Festivals.

No, I am not about to suggest that writers of popular fiction chain themselves to the Edinburgh International Book Festival, or throw themselves under the 2005 Festival of Words in Derby, but, in the immortal words of Charlie Croker, I've got a great idea.

More tomorrow when I've thought it through a bit.
Regency slang term of the day:
North Allertons - Spurs; North Allerton, like Ripon, being famous for making them.

Divine Monosyllable of the day:
Mons Meg
Apparently being an award-winning romantic novelist is a mixed blessing. Jojo Moyes infamously started her acceptance speech for the Romantic Novelists' Association 2004 Romantic Novel of the Year award with a denial that she wrote romantic novels at all. Not that her conscience was sufficiently pricked that she was willing to turn down the £10,000 that went with the award.

Now, more than a year on, it looks like she still hasn't got over it. She has been talking to The Australian about her new book, The Ship of Brides, which can escape the romantic ghetto by flashing its credentials as a historical novel.
When critics compared her with Maeve Binchy, Joanne Harris and Rosamund Pilcher, she was flattered. When they made her Romantic Novelist of the Year in 2004, she was perplexed. "I just thought I wrote big books with love stories in them," she says. "I guess I was guilty of assuming they were all like Mills & Boon.
OK, so Mills & Boon don't publish "big books with love stories in them". Instead they publish little books with love stories in them, and those, it seems to me, are somewhat harder to write. Blaise Pascal famously apologised for a letter that was longer than usual, because he had not had time to make it shorter.
I was grateful to get it, of course.
That would be the £10,000, then.
I think the RNA [Romantic Novelists Association] is being quite clever now; they even put Andrea Levy on this year's short list."
Well, while that was good publicity for the RNA there are a lot of people who felt that it shouldn't have been shortlisted because, unlike Moyes' Foreign Fruit it wasn't really a romantic novel. In fact the RNA are changing the process by which they come up with a shortlist in order to ensure that the books considered by the judges really are the best romantic novels of the year, and not just a selection of "literary lite" novels with some sort of love story tucked in somewhere.

Not that I am entirely out of sympathy with Jojo Moyes (but that is for another piece). I do however think that while our cricket team are taking on the Australians in a crucial battle for the Ashes, the last thing that the readers of The Australians need is a whingeing pom.

Friday, 22 July 2005

I haven't begun to think about the acknowledgements for my WIP, but when I do I must not forget to include thanks to Emily G.

(Link from Bookslut.)
Regency slang term of the day:
Fly Slicers - Lifeguards, from their sitting on horseback, under an arch, where they are frequently observed to drive away flies with their swords.

Divine Monosyllable of the day:

Thursday, 21 July 2005

There is an interesting piece by Bobbie Johnson in today's Guardian on writers and the web. It looks at the use made of the web by three writers - J K Rowling, Chris Cleave and Jasper Fforde. Johnson concludes that the web has not, as might have been expected, killed the art of reading books.
Science fiction has a long history of slavish, unsociable technology addicts who trade in their real lives for virtual ones. But the greatest fear of the literary world - that people would stop reading books altogether - now seems as absurd as the plot of a melodrama. Not only is today's wired society reading more, but it has found new ways to support its reading habits: through websites, instant messaging and email. The web is just another weapon in the author's arsenal.
The greatest fear of the literary world? Or a slightly sensationalist hook on which to hang an otherwise sensible article?
Regency slang term of the day:
The Dobin Lay - stealing ribbons from haberdashers early in the morning or late at night; generally practised by women in disguise of maidservants.

Divine Monosyllable of the day:
Upper Holloway

Wednesday, 20 July 2005

I've just watched the third and final episode of To the Ends of the Earth, the BBC adaptation of William Golding's Sea Trilogy, Rites of Passage, Close Quarters and Fire Down Below.

I have to confess that I haven't read the books - after Lord of the Flies (which I read at school), The Spire (at University) and The Inheritors (at Graduate School) I concluded that Golding was unlikely to offer many Happy Ever Afters - so I don't know what of the 750+ pages of the original had to be jettisoned to fit into only 270 minutes of screen time. Nonetheless the series seemed to me to do a great job of capturing the feel of a long sea passage in the early 19th Century. So much so that the final scenes on land in Australia felt rather flat in comparison.

There were, I noticed, a large number of sideburns on display. Jared Harris (son of Richard "Dumbledore" Harris) sported a very impressive pair as Captain Anderson, as did Charles Dance as Sir Henry Somerset. The pictures on the BBC website do not do them justice. But sadly none of the characters discussed their sideburns - or indeed anybody else's - so I could not resolve my earlier problem.

All in all, a wonderful production, and to cap it all, there was a happy ending.
Regency slang term of the day (first in a series):
Letter Racket - men or women of genteel address, going about to respectable houses with a letter or statement detailing some case of extreme distress, as shipwreck, sufferings by fire etc. by which many benevolent, but credulous, persons are induced to relieve the fictitious wants of the impostors.

Divine Monosyllable of the day:
Bluebeard's closet

Tuesday, 19 July 2005

Thanks to Bookslut for alerting me to Leah McLaren's recent piece in the Toronto Globe and Mail.
"How's your book going?" has become my least favourite question. I used to think writers didn't like talking about their works-in-progress because they were afraid people would steal their brilliant ideas. Now I know the truth. Writers hate talking about their books because they're sick to death of them. That and the fact that, on any given day, they secretly suspect that their books might stink.
Of course my current work-in-progress doesn't stink, but I still worry that everybody else will think that it does.
Today my favourite blog comes from those demure young ladies at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, who write top-notch reviews of romantic fiction, and obviously know that the writing process is jolly hard work. As Sarah from SBTB says,
And let’s not even go near the amount of research inherent in Regency-writing communities, and what happens if you get your facts wrong. They will come to your door and beat you with era-appropriate torture devices!!
Now put down that reticule and step away from the barouche...
A parcel from Amazon dropped onto the doormat this morning. In addition to the wonderful Les Vacances de M.Hulot, the package contained Francis Grose's The Vulgar Tongue, a dictionary of "Buckish Slang and Pickpocket Eloquence" first published in 1785.

Grose will have a place on the shelf next to the Penguin Dictionary of Historical Slang (an abridged version of Eric Partridge's "A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English" first published in 1937) and Farmer and Henley's "A Dictionary of Slang and its Analogues" from 1890. On current form it is not going to spend too long in its place. These books just contain too much weird and unexpected stuff. I spend far too long browsing through them, trying to kid myself that this is research.

Am I really going to bring the Gooseberry Lay (stealing linen from a line) or the Running Smobble (snatching goods off a counter and throwing them to an accomplice who rushes off with them) into my current work-in-progress, or even a future one? Will I have a character in the Old Bold (the 29th Foot), the Old Strawboots (the 7th Hussars) or the Old Toughs (the 103rd Foot)? Do I really need eighteen columns of synonyms (in English, French, German, Spanish and Portuguese) for the Divine Monosyllable? And why eighteen columns for that when there are but three columns of synonym for Creamstick?

Maybe not, but at least I'll know my Nazarene Foretop from my Mucking-Togs, and who knows when that might come in handy?

Monday, 18 July 2005

Some perspective on Pottermania.

This is shamelessly lifted from an e-mail from Mandy, and indeed her source, The Telegraph of Calcutta, lifted it from Roland White in the Sunday Times:
Let’s keep things in perspective. Until Friday, the Harry Potter series had sold about 270 million copies worldwide. Which is considerably less than the one billion shifted by the late, rather unfashionable, Barbara Cartland.
What were sideburns called in the early 19th Century?

The Oxford English Dictionary (today's word of the day is "Stith", a word once found in Beowulf but now extinct south of the border) confirms what I have always been taught, which is that the word was formed from the name of the American Civil War General Ambrose Burnside who certainly sported an impressive set. But the Duke of Wellington had grown an albeit less impressive pair while Burnside was too young to shave, so what did he call them?

Sunday, 17 July 2005

One of the most stimulating sessions that I attended at the recent Romantic Novelists' Association Annual Conference was called "Living with - and loving - the Alpha Male." The presenters of the session, Harlequin Mills & Boon editors Tessa Shapcott and Bryony Green, told us that it was the guarantee that there would be an Alpha Male inside every M&B book that was a major contribution to the continuing success of their brand.

While I am not aiming to write for M&B (although I have immense respect for those, like Nicola Cornick and Joanna Maitland, who do), after an hour of Greek shipping tycoons, brilliant doctors and even the occasional slightly (but only slightly) sweaty biker I still came away a little concerned about my own hero. He is the youngest son of a Duke, which gives him all the Alpha social status that he needs. He is tall (-ish) and of course very handsome, which helps, but the nature of his occupation - counter-espionage - makes him, of necessity, a dweller in the shadows. For much of the time he must be an observer of the activities of others, rather than a protagonist. Of course he does intervene when it matters, and he does so with, I hope, all the élan that one might wish for. He can ride ventre à terre, climb down ventilation shafts, dance the Cotillion blindfold, and tie his cravat in a dozen subtly different styles, and I am sure he could, if called upon, disguise himself as a pirate simply by lifting an eyebrow (did I get that right, Mandy?) But all that is of little use if he never gets the chance to do it on the page.

So while I polish up the early chapters I need to Alpha-up Lord Alexander. Hmm, maybe I could start with that name.

Saturday, 16 July 2005

I did my bit for the Harry Potter industry this morning, taking Giles (8½) along to our local Ottakars to pick up his prebooked copy of HP&tHBP. The shop had a slightly hungover feel, having had 300 people in last night for the big launch.

I am not one of those who find it appealing to whinge about the success of the Harry Potter books, but I do wonder why Bloomsbury decided to spend so much money on the launch of a book that was guaranteed to be the year's biggest seller without a penny spent on promotion. I am sure that Bloomsbury's sales and marketing department have a sensible justification, but I have come up with a conspiracy theory that might not be true, but is a little more more fun.

HP&tHBP is the penultimate Potter. After number 7 turns up in a year or two's time that will be the lot. Financial journalists are already wondering how Bloomsbury and their American partner Scholastic will fill the gap. But what if there is no gap? What if Bloomsbury deliberately blow all their projected profits from this and the next Potter book on over-the-top launch events, silly lawsuits, huge discounts and general hoop-la? Then, when the lean non-Potter years come along they can demonstrate that it has made no difference at all to their bottom line.

Of course, if Bloomsbury are looking for a new author to turn into the next J K Rowling, I can recommend an as yet unpublished author of Regency Romps...

Friday, 15 July 2005

Are there too many non-literary stars at literary festivals? Howard Jacobsen debated this with Kay Dunbar, director of the Ways with Words Literary Festival, on the Today Programme on Radio 4 this morning (Real Audio).

Jacobsen is happy to be the skateboarding duck or the dog that says "sausages" on the Today programme, rather than being at the heart of their agenda, but is annoyed by the encroachment of Today's cadres, in the shape of its presenters and correspondents as well as its regular interviewees, into the Literary Festival circuit at the expense of Proper Writers.

A quick scan of the programme for Ways with Words does tend to support Jacobsen's argument. Lots of big names from the BBC (Michael Buerk, Fergal Keane) and the celeb circuit (Princess Michael of Kent, Greg Dyke). Is this what makes WwW "Britain's premier Literature Festivals"?

But if Jacobsen had his way, who would be speaking at Dartington in place of these media stars? Julian Barnes and Louis de Bernieres, Melissa Bank and Penelope Lively are already on the schedule (and didn't sell out). I suspect that Jacobsen would want more of the same. I don't see him inviting more commercial writers like Katie Fforde, Anita Burgh or Jill Mansell, whose books might actually have been read by those who turned up to hear Princess Michael and Sheila Hancock.

While Dunbar justifies her big-name attractions on the grounds that literature festivals should be about more than just fiction, and Jacobsen fights for the cause of Lit Fic, it strikes me that nobody in this debate is supporting popular fiction at all.
Grumpy Old Bookman is definitely my favourite blog today.
An update on my first post. Catherine Jones has responded to the Telegraph's unwarranted slur with a neat riposte.
One of my favourite blogs at the moment is Language Log. There are few days when it doesn't produce something that is entertaining and educational.

In my younger days, when I had more hair, and black t-shirts with silver lettering on them, my musical tastes focused on heavy metal and prog rock. Of course in those days prog rock was real prog rock, and it was more important that heavy metal was loud than that it was fast. It was in the midst of that halcyon daze that the heavy metal umlaut (or should that be 'ümlaut'?) came into existence. I am grateful to Language Log for alerting me to just how far the thing has spread.

Thursday, 14 July 2005

Stephen Posted by Picasa
I wasn't going to start blogging quite yet, but when the Daily Telegraph suggested this morning that I was not a Real Romantic Novelist, but merely a "Ringer" I realised that it was time to take some action.

I am a writer of historical fiction, as yet unpublished but that will change. I am currently working on a Romantic Regency Romp, James Bond meets Georgette Heyer, complete with fireworks and at least one elephant. If I had a good title for it I would tell you, but for the time being the file name is just "Regency".

My target is to complete and redraft the thing by the end of August at which point it goes off to the Romantic Novelists' Association's wonderful New Writers' Scheme where it will be read by somebody who knows what it takes to get published - Amanda Grange, or Elizabeth Hawksley, for instance.

But for now I will just end with another view of the event that started this blog off, this time as seen by The Times.