Posted in ice-skating, Writing

How writing is like figure skating

Since we’re back in the thick of figure skating competition season, and I recently got my writing mojo back after several years of being deep in the doldrums, I thought I’d do a post talking about the similarities between writing and skating.

1. Very rarely are you perfect from the very moment you begin. Even novice skaters and writers who show great early promise, stunning talent, and unusual maturity and sophistication still have to hone those qualities and learn how to put them together for the complete package at the highest level.

2. Great skating programs and books work by seamlessly weaving all the elements in and out. Skaters learn how to transition from one element to the next without looking like they’re setting it up, and they don’t cluster all the jumps together. Likewise, writers learn how to incorporate research, character development, dialogue, continuity, foreshadowing, and plotting into a blended, cohesive whole.

3. Almost everyone has one complete meltdown skate, terrible showing in an event, or awful first draft. Those experiences are important to growth and development, and often give us the fire to come back much stronger. Sometimes we need to fail to realize just how badly we need to learn better or different habits.

4. Some coaches deliberately send skaters to a competition they know will be a failure. Likewise, some writers enter contests they know there’s a slim chance of winning and query agents they don’t expect a yes from. It’s more important to gain experience and discover which skills exactly most need developing.

5. Sometimes skaters develop bad habits like instinctively popping jumps out of fear or a lack of confidence. They’re perfectly capable of landing the jumps, but have that moment of panic. These habits can be overcome through training and getting back into the right mindset. So too is it with writers who fall into bad habits, like how I recently realized I went into permanent editor mode even when I wasn’t editing.

6. The wrong choreography, program, or partner can be the completely wrong fit for a great skater, just like some good writers flounder with certain genres, storylines, POVs, or tenses.

7. Skaters tend to go through a rough spot when their puberty growth spurt occurs, with lots of uncharacteristic mistakes. It’s not that they forgot how to do the jumps, but rather that they’re not used to the new proportions of their bodies yet. They have a new centre of gravity, a higher weight, longer legs, and thus need to learn how to do the jumps all over again with a technique tailored to that changed size and shape. Likewise, writers who hit a rough patch are able to come back swinging because they still have all the necessary skills and experience, even if they have to start doing some things slightly differently.

8. One of the first thing skaters learn is how to fall properly. Of course no one wants to fall, but it’s kind of inevitable when you’re balancing on such thin knives on slippery ice. The best you can do is fall with safe, proper form so you can quickly get back up and minimize the risk of injury. Likewise, writers should prepare themselves for not always doing so well.

9. Skaters immediately, instinctively realize they’re off-kilter in the air, but good skaters will fight for that landing, even if it’s two-footed, with a hand down, or with very shaky form. They don’t passively give up and let themselves splay across the ice like a limp ragdoll with an ugly fall. Likewise, good writers fight to get back on the right track or complete a manuscript when they’re struggling.

10. No one likes making mistake after mistake in front of a huge audience and knowing there’s no chance of a medal, but a good skater needs to push on and finish the program no matter what. He or she may have finished dead last or not qualified for the free skate, but at least s/he didn’t give up. Likewise, it’s important to keep writing every day of NaNo even when you know you won’t come anywhere near 50K, or get to the last word of a hot mess first draft that’s taking years to complete.

11. It’s common for a skater to start out being really strong on jumps but sorely lacking in artistry and connecting elements. Only time and practice can bring together the complete package. Likewise, some writers start out great with descriptions and dialogue, but aren’t very strong on character development and plotting.

12. No skating program or book will be across the board perfection every single time, but when they are, it’s oh so meaningful and worth every minute of training or editing.

However, there is one major difference between skating and writing. You could have a thousand perfect practices, but all that matters is how you perform on the actual day. Those great practices are meaningless if you miss all your jumps in competition, and you have no chance to redo that program. But in writing, you have the opportunity to edit and polish a hot, disjointed mess into perfection.

Posted in 1280s, alternative history, Dante, Middle Ages, Writing

WeWriWa—Recovery mission completed

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. The rules have now been relaxed to allow a few more sentences if merited, so long as they’re clearly indicated, to avoid the creative punctuation many of us have used to stay within the limit.

I’ve returned to my alternative history about Dante and Beatrice, which I recently resumed after many months of hiatus. It’s now December 1287, and Dante has just become a widower at 22 years old (which didn’t happen in real life). Beatrice is in his house recovering from a very serious illness and a terrible beating her husband gave her before sailing to Cyprus on business.

Three days later, Dante has gone to her house in another part of town with her father and several servants to retrieve her belongings. The servants were horrified to discover the corpses of Beatrice’s maidservants, whom she reported had died of illness shortly before she left. However, her father is insistent that this mission proceed without delay.

This comes a bit after last week’s excerpt.

“We’re taking this cupboard,” Ser Folco announced. “Cilia and I gave it to Bice as one of her wedding presents, and everything in it belongs to her. Be very careful not to break the glass or let the religious books fall out.”

His three manservants heaved it onto their backs and slowly made their way to the stairs.

“The lady’s jewelry is in this strongbox,” Galfrido reported. “I don’t see any of her husband’s belongings here.”

“Then we’ll take that too,” Ser Folco said. “We’re not leaving this house without every single possession Bice brought here or acquired since she married Mone.”

Two hours later, we began the return journey to Via Santa Margherita, and not a second too soon. The stench of the bloated, putrefying corpses seemed to be growing stronger, which had brought on the sickeningly familiar sensation of lightheadedness.

The ten lines end here. A few more follow to finish the scene.

My condition was exacerbated by the relentless images of de ’Bardi beating Beatrice and having relations with her. The more I thought about that, the more gruesome and detailed the pictures in my mind became. I prayed I wouldn’t pass out in the street.

“After I take care of the funeral arrangements for those poor unfortunate ladies, I’ll make inquiries into the dismissed manservants,” Ser Folco said. “They’ll be able to testify to Bice’s honorable conduct. Every time I think about Mone’s baseless, obscene accusation, my anger is renewed a hundredfold! My most virtuous daughter is not a shameless harlot! Had I known what Mone is really all about, I never would’ve sent him to my Cypriot bank or let him work with me at all. Cilia and I will be so much more careful about arranging our other daughters’ marriages. Having money and coming from an important family mean nothing when they’re not accompanied by a noble character and kind heart.”

Ser Folco continued ranting against de ’Bardi the entire way back to our neighborhood. In all the years I’d known him, he’d never used such strong language before or so openly criticized anyone.

Posted in 1930s, 1940s, Atlantic City books, Food, Historical fiction, Writing

The perils of pinning down every historical detail

While every good historical writer obviously needs to do a lot of research and get as many facts as possible right, there are inevitably times where we can’t find any information, the known existing information is scarce and sketchy, or it’s so difficult and time-consuming to locate information that it’s not really worth the effort. When that happens, we need to weigh the need for historical accuracy against how likely it is anyone will actually notice or care if some details aren’t 100% correct.

One of those scenarios is what was on the menu at real restaurants.

I’ve spent the past week working on my World’s Fair chapter in the book formerly known as The Very Last, and part of my research includes finding out what was served at the restaurants. I found several great New York Times articles in the archives (which I can search for free through my local library), along with the information at this awesome repository and some other sources.

However, one thing I didn’t count on was that some of those restaurants didn’t exist during the Fair’s second season in 1940, since almost a dozen foreign pavilions in the Government Zone were closed due to WWII. Other restaurants offered different menu items in 1940.

Above is the original menu of the Iraqi café, which sounds totally awesome, but which wasn’t the same during the second season. After I wrote a scene of Cinni and some of her friends having lunch there during their first day at the Fair, I discovered the café expanded to a full restaurant and added savoury Middle Eastern food. I can’t discount the possibility that they still offered those sweet date-based dishes, but that was no longer the entirety of their menu in 1940.

Historical menus absolutely can be found if you know where to look. Some major restaurants will mention the evolution of their menu and food offerings over the years in the history section of their websites. The New York Public Library has a huge free online treasure trove of archived menus. I’ve found numerous websites and serious blog posts about Brooklyn’s sadly closed Gage and Tollner restaurant (which was kind of like Delmonico’s).

But sometimes, it’s just too time-consuming and difficult, or even downright impossible, to track down certain details. Yeah, I could fly up to NYC and spend a few days looking through archives, or pay an archivist or librarian to do the research for me and send me the relevant information. But is that really worth the effort when the World’s Fair only occupies a single chapter? It’s not like the entire book or an entire part of the book is about the Fair!

In the absence of 100% proof, we should err on the side of plausibility. E.g., a seafood restaurant probably wouldn’t serve hamburgers. Vegetarian and vegan options just weren’t a thing until fairly recently. A French café wouldn’t offer Thai food.

Using a fictional restaurant eliminates the possibility of inadvertent error entirely.

Plus, how many people are going to notice or care if you include a menu item that may not have really been available on that date at that restaurant? I highly doubt that’ll pull anyone normal out of the story like a blatant anachronism would. You shouldn’t stress over a tiny detail that’s not important to the overall book. All that matters is doing the best you could with the information available.

Another little detail you may not always be able to find is makeup colours. There are plenty of vintage makeup ads to be found, and vintage beauty bloggers, but not all makeup comes from major name brands. Many makeup companies also like to give their colours creative names, beyond simple designators like red, pink, and green.

Also, makeup colours were a lot more conservative decades ago. The kind of lipsticks I like to wear (black, dark blue, dark green, purple) didn’t exist, and while nailpolish had a somewhat larger range, it also generally didn’t include colours like black, orange, and purple.

Do you notice or care if a few minor historical details aren’t 100% accurate? Do you appreciate an author’s note explaining the reasons for such decisions?

Posted in 1280s, alternative history, Dante, Middle Ages, Writing

WeWriWa—Horrific discoveries

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. The rules have now been relaxed to allow a few more sentences if merited, so long as they’re clearly indicated, to avoid the creative punctuation many of us have used to stay within the limit.

I’ve returned to my alternative history about Dante and Beatrice, which I recently resumed after many months of hiatus. It’s now December 1287, and Dante has just become a widower at 22 years old (which didn’t happen in real life). Beatrice is in his house recovering from a very serious illness and a terrible beating her husband gave her before sailing to Cyprus on business.

Three days later, Dante has gone to her house in another part of town with her father and several servants to retrieve her belongings. The servants were horrified to discover the corpses of Beatrice’s maidservants, whom she reported had died of illness shortly before she left. However, her father is insistent that this mission proceed without delay.

I took a large basket from the cart and proceeded inside after the manservants and Galfrido, hoping my fear didn’t show upon my face. The sooner we finished our business in this house of the dead, the better.

All the blood in my veins froze, and a wave of bile rose in my throat, when my eyes fell upon three bloated, blistered, blackened bodies, devoid of clothing, curled up on their beds. A strong, noxious smell filled the air.

“May God rest their souls,” Ser Folco murmured. “Praise Christ Bice escaped this. She may not have lived much longer if she’d remained here, infected with God knows what.”

I was in a daze as we continued moving through the house, scouring each room for important belongings. Once Galfrido found the keys, he and the other manservants commenced opening the trunks and strongboxes, pulling out everything to determine which objects belonged to Beatrice and which to de ’Bardi. They left de ’Bardi’s belongings all over the floor.

The ten lines end here. A few more follow to finish the scene.

The sight of the bedchamber tore like a lance through my heart. There at the centre of the room was a large mattress with four oak columns supporting a rectangular panel above. Hung upon this ornately-carved wood were scarlet velvet curtains embroidered with gold and silver thread. The sheets, pillows, and quilt were just as luxurious. Completing the grand display of wealth was a hanging iron lamp, carved on all sides with the de ’Bardi coat of arms, seven joined rhombi running diagonally from left to right.

All I could think about as I looked upon this symbol of opulence was that de ’Bardi had carnal relations with Beatrice there. From the day of her marriage, I’d prayed he wouldn’t be rough or cruel with her, but now I knew my prayers hadn’t been answered. I couldn’t rid my mind of the image of that brute taking away her tender innocence at the age of fourteen, this pearl among men who’d already been married once before and was over twenty years older.

If I hadn’t been so afraid of the consequences of discovery and mindful of the Church teachings about forbidden intimacy, I would’ve done a lot more than just kiss and caress her in the garden. That would’ve spared her from having to experience carnal relations for the first time with someone she didn’t love, who didn’t love her and didn’t care about being gentle.

Posted in 1900s, Movies, Silent film

Happy 120th birthday, Life of an American Fireman!

Life of an American Fireman, filmed in late 1902 and released January 1903, stands as one of the very earliest narrative films in the U.S. Prior, most films were actualities, little vignettes of daily life, instead of having actual storylines like Georges Méliès’s pioneering French films. That all began changing with this short classic directed by the legendary pioneer Edwin S. Porter.

For many decades, Fireman was considered revolutionary on account of its editing techniques, namely being the first alleged known use of cross-cutting in the final scene. However, this was later proven to be a false claim, based on researching the paper print at the Library of Congress.

The original version contained few, if any, of the cross-cuts seen in the version which was best-known for a long time. E.g., the inside POV of the burning house appears first, then repeats exactly with an exterior POV, instead of cutting back and forth between the perspectives. Thus, the film was edited at some point, though the exact date is unknown.

According to film historian Charles Musser, author of Before the Nickelodeon and an expert on Edwin S. Porter, the version first seen by January 1903 audiences was the one with repeated actions and scenes, not the cross-cut version.

In 2016, Fireman was chosen for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry of the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” I first saw it on the excellent 4-disc set Edison: The Invention of the Movies, which contains films from 1889–1918. It’s also available on Treasures from American Film Archives, another 4-disc set which is the first of a currently six-part series showcasing early films.

As Charles Musser explains, this film represents how firefighters’ social role was changing in that era. It also has much in common with the 1901 British film Fire!, directed by James Williamson.

Fireman was considered a lost film until 1944, when the Museum of Modern Art acquired a 35mm print from Pathé.

The story is rather simple. A fireman dreams of a woman putting her little girl to bed, and shortly thereafter an alarm sounds. All the firemen rush out of bed and dress, slide down the pole, and get into their waiting horse-drawn firetrucks. Everyone lines up in the streets to watch as they race to the rescue.

The woman inside the burning house passes out on her bed right before the fireman gets inside. He carries her down the ladder by the window he axed open, then carries her daughter to safety. Once everyone is out, he and another fireman begin putting out the fire.

In the next scene, the same woman begs at the window for help, and the fireman goes up the ladder to rescue her. He then goes back up for her daughter. This was cross-cut together in the later edit.

Original version without cross-cutting.