Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Why I Love YouTube


I was getting ready to write a scene the other day that involves the bad guys blowing up a building with gunpowder. And it occurred to me that I didn't have a clue what that would look like. So I Googled "gunpowder explosion" and found this really neat YouTube video that is one of an eight-part British television program called "The Gunpowder Plot--Exploding the Legend" in which they actually recreate the explosion planned by the famous would-be Gunpowder Plot assassins.

They go into all sorts of wonderful detail about early gunpowder and of course the dynamics of such explosions. And then we get to actually see the an explosion taking place, right before our eyes. A writer couldn't ask for anything more!

Monday, June 18, 2012

Huck, Revisited

One of my favorite books growing up was The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. My older sister checked it out of the library and first read it to me when I was seven, but I enjoyed the experience so much that I immediately sat down and reread it myself. Then our new lab puppy gnawed one end of the cover, so we had to buy the book from the library and it became ours. At the time it seemed a calamity (money was tight in those days, as my dad was in grad school) but it was really a gift. And since it’s one of the old 1930’s copies with the Norman Rockwell illustrations, I’m still glad to have it, chewed back cover and all.

I don’t remember how many times I read Huck Finn during my growing years, although I’ve no doubt the story had an enormous influence on me in ways I probably still don’t understand. But it had been a long time since I floated down the Mississippi with Huck and Jim, and so this past weekend I downloaded the book to my iPad and revisited my childhood.


What did I discover? That the book is even funnier than I remembered—or perhaps it’s simply funnier than I completely appreciated as a child. I was surprised by how clearly I recalled some segments, while others I remembered hardly at all. And as an author, I am in awe of Twain’s imagination and the way in which he wove together theme and character development and moral questioning.

I was also interested to discover that controversy has surrounded the book from the beginning; it provoked outrage back in 1884, when it was first published. Because it’s one of the first books written in the vernacular, critics called it rude and crude and morally objectionable. It was banned from libraries. Fast forward to our own era, and once again, Huck Finn frequently finds itself the focus of a storm of controversy, largely because the “n” word peppers the entire book and the character Jim is denigrated as stereotypical. Legions of earnest parents, educators, and moralists insist that children should not be allowed to read it. A new edition actually substituted “slave” for every “n” word in the book (even when referring to free men). At one point, CBS filmed it for television and left out Jim entirely!


Ironic, given that Huck Finn was written as a biting satire on racism and the moral hypocrisy that allowed it to flourish. The book is populated with a legion of nasty or foolish white people, from Huck’s “pap” and the “duke” and “king,” to the silly sisters who hand over their fortune to charlatans and multiple vicious mobs. Even Tom Sawyer is far from admirable; he cruelly (and dangerously) withholds the truth about Jim simply so he can have a grand “adventure”. The only really admirable adult in the entire book is Jim. Jim is brave, loyal, honest, trustworthy, and a good, loving father (in deliberate juxtaposition to Huck’s “pap”). Yes, he is superstitious, but so were most uneducated people in those days (see The Adventures of Tom Sawyer), and as the book progresses, his wisdom becomes more and more apparent to both Huck and the reader. I understand African-American frustration at being so often relegated to the role of wise mentor. But this is not a book about a black man aggressively fighting his way to freedom; it’s about a boy learning valuable lessons about human nature, racism, and hypocrisy as he grows to manhood. How is it a bad thing that his teacher is a black man?


As for the “n” word, how does an author write a book set in an era when the word was used by most of the population, and not use it? I can understand its offensiveness to people today; but does that mean that historical novelists must write anachronistic dialogue? Isn’t that rewriting history for the worst possible reasons? Why pretend that something offensive did not happen? Should we portray racist bigots as less offensive than they really were, simply to avoid using an historically accurate but vile word? How is it a good idea to throw away what could be learned by a thoughtful, sensitive, honest exploration of those times?

Your thoughts?

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

On Larrikins and Wowsers


I was writing along on Sebastian Number Nine the other day and just stopped myself from using the word “larrikin.” I vaguely remembered that it only dates back to the late 19th century, and when I looked it up, I saw that not only was I right, but that it is an Australian term—one of the many that crept into my vocabulary without my noticing during the twelve years I lived there. I asked Steve if Americans use it, and he said, “No.” Which struck me as a real shame, because it’s a great word.

So what is a larrikin? He’s basically your quintessential young Aussie male: wild at heart and frequently rather unruly, he laughs often, lives life to the fullest, and couldn’t care less about rules, authority figures, or what other people think. Probably the best known larrikin, at least to American audiences, is Crocodile Dundee, although Flurry Knox is an even better example, if you’ve ever read the Irish RM books (yes, I know he’s Irish, but he’s one of the greatest larrikins ever created).


The larrikin’s opposite is the wowser. Our friends at Wikipedia describe wowsers as those whose exaggerated sense of morality drives them to believe they have a God-given mission to deprive others of their sinful pleasures, which pretty much nails it. Think Carrie Nation, or that guy (who shall remain nameless) who recently got up on American television and said that sex should only be for purposes of procreation and anything else is a sin. He’s a card-carrying wowser.

Larrikin and wowser: two words that fill a definite niche.

Friday, June 08, 2012

Progress Report

Yes, I'm still alive. Just about the time I thought I was well enough to start blogging again, I had a serious set back. But, hopefully, this is it. I'm getting really, really tired of doctors.

As for what's been going on (other than a rather tiresome struggle to stay alive), I have managed for the most part to keep chugging away at book number nine in the Sebastian series. In fact, thanks to so many days of enforced rest, I'm actually ahead of where I'd hoped to be at this point. I suppose it's one of the advantages of being in the habit of writing by hand on legal pads.

We also have a pretty amazing new cover for What Darkness Brings, although thanks to the peculiarities of the publishing industry and a bunch of legalities, I can't show it to you yet. But I can give you a hint: Picture a medieval tower, some spooky bare tree limbs, and Sebastian looking up. It's quite a departure from the previous covers, and I'm anxious to hear what you think.

While I was down and almost out, Blogger fiddled with all their settings, with the result that I'm not sure what this is going to look like when I hit "Publish." So if it looks weird, you'll know why!

The photo was taken by my daughter, Danielle, with the new Canon Rebel we gave her for her birthday this week.