About rod

My name is Rod Hart. I live in Edinburgh. I read a lot and write. Two novels have appeared so far. To keep my brain turning over, I am also learning Swedish.

Accuracy or Invention of Character

This post concerns these two approaches when it comes to fiction. (I like to think that writers of non-fiction don’t resort to invention.) It is also restricted to my own view on this subject without prejudice to what any other writer might do.

I have written six novels, two of which I have not attempted to publish. In one case the reason was that the book might have been deemed defamatory, though had this happened my defence would have been accuracy. Despite the fact that the subject is now dead, I would follow the same principle. I don’t consider it acceptable to defame someone, even if they are dead, for the purposes of fiction. There are no doubt many examples of this, but one which comes to mind (my mind, at least) is Antonio Salieri. This poor man has been traduced several times, for example, by Alexander Pushkin, Rimsky-Korsakov (after Pushkin) and most egregiously in the play Amadeus by Peter Schaffer, later made into a film. 

There was undoubtedly some rivalry between Salieri and Mozart, but there is also evidence of Salieri’s support for Mozart on several occasions, and also much evidence of Salieri’s kindness to others. When it came to teaching his speciality was singing – not an area Mozart ever entered – and it is known that he gave tuition free of charge except to the wealthy. Then there was his reaction to the death of his student, Marianna von Auenbrugger, at the age of 23. Marianna composed as well as played and when she died Salieri, at his own expense, published her Sonata in E-flat as a memorial to her. He was obviously deeply affected by the death of this talented young woman. 

Making things up is clearly a contentious subject and very much with us today. When the film Titanic aired, relatives of the first officer, William McMaster Murdoch, took exception to the portrayal of this gentleman, apparently with some reason.

But in case this has been forgotten, there are more recent examples. Over the past few years, a series called The Crown has been aired on Netflix. Unless the writers were flies on private walls, grouse moors and many other places on numerous occasions, the dialogue between members of the monarchy and those associated with them is invented. Okay, so the exact words were made up, but perhaps they bear accurate witness to the thoughts and feelings of those involved? For the most part, there is  no way of knowing. And some of these people are still with us today, notably Charles and Camilla who, I read, will shortly hit our screens in the forthcoming series of The Crown. The fact that some of us don’t consider this a good idea does not make it illegal: if it were, injunctions would surely be flying. For my part, it amazes me that writers can legally put words into the mouths of living people like this.

And what do we make of the series, Blonde, based on the  biography of Marilyn Monroe by Joyce Carol Oates? I could, of course, follow the fashion of the times and insert an image of Marilyn at this point but prefer not to do so. What would it add? Most people already know what she looked like. 

To me this subject raises a number of question. For example, when we die, does our reputation die with us or is everyone free to trash it? Or how about this: can novelists and screen writers just make us up?

 

The Teahouse of the September Moon

There are far more coffee shops where I live than there were twenty years ago. Many of these are run by chains such as Costa, Starbucks and Caffè Nero. But there are independents too, some of them excellent. In the past, patrons used to gather in coffee shops and discuss burning issues of the day – the use of gas for street lighting, the benefits of laudanum in the creative process. On occasion, they even discussed books. But now, as far as I can tell, the emphasis is on coffee, pastries and other such delectables.

These three Chinese girls are at the counter of my favourite independent, the Kilimajaro in Edinburgh, clearly suffering from the existential agony of choice. So many goodies to choose from, what should we have?

And did I just mention Chinese? In the past three or four years, there has been an noticeable increase in the number of tea shops here. This is very evident in the part of the city I inhabit, the south side. And I am amazed to find the great variety of teas on offer.

The reason for this increase in tea shops seems clear. The south side is home to the University of Edinburgh which, every year, recruits a large number of Chinese students. And where there is a market, someone will try to cater for it.

So the next time you visit us here in Edinburgh, don’t hesitate to pop into one of our new tea shops. You don’t have to speak Mandarin or Cantonese, you can always point to the picture of your brew of choice.

Lost Skills

Some skills are not so much lost as replaced by others. In this case, I’m thinking of audio recording. I used to record a lot, mainly actors and theatre SFX, and greatly enjoyed it. In times past, which is where I belong, people like me would use open reel tape decks both in the studio and on location. They were very well engineered and a joy to work with. The power they produced when rewinding and fast forwarding was amazing. You could feel the draught on your face.

There weren’t so many portable open reel machines, but they were good. You could tape an interview on location, edit it with a splicing block, razor and chinagraph pencil, and the edited version was of broadcast quality. The leader in the field was Nagra, wonderful machines but expensive. If you didn’t have that kind of money you could always use a Uher. They were excellent too and cost a bit less.

Although a few people used open reel decks in the home they were by no means common. For two reasons. The first was size: they tended to be large and heavy. The second was the fact that the user had to thread the audio tape from the full spool to the empty spool to start recording or replaying – and taking the correct route to get there required a little knowledge and a modicum of physical skill. Oh, and did I mention leader tape?

So these ‘problems’ were addressed by manufacturers having an eye on the mass market, Phillips, for example, and they came up with the audio cassette. The audio cassette was, and still, is very small, so the machine used to record on it or replay it could also be small. And they went down very well with the public at large since these neat little audio cassettes came ready spooled. At a stroke, the hassle was removed!  As a result, cassette machines really took off. People could be seen jogging along pavements with their Walkmans and they became a standard feature of cars for many years. But the price paid for this user-friendly miniaturisation was a big reduction in recording quality (explained in a note below).

In fact, the real cause of the loss of open reel recording skills was not the audio cassette but the rise of the computer, which allowed us to dispense with tape altogether. We have now moved from the analogue era (tape) to the digital (computer recording and editing). The program I used at work was Pro Tools, which was and still is a sophisticated recording and editing package.

So, what’s it to be: analogue lor digital? When I recently suggested a solution to an audio problem it was soon pointed out to me that my solution involved straying into the analogue domain. This was true, but with it came the assumption that digital is inherently superior to analogue. It’s certainly superior to the audio cassette format, but is it superior, say, to an open reel machine recording at 15 inches per second? I don’t think so.

You could argue that a good analogue recording gives us the whole wave where the digital recording gives us samples of it. So many that we almost have the whole wave, but it can never give us the wave in its entirety. So how is that better? And it’s worth pointing out that we all have analogue ears!

Where digital recording scores, though, is when it comes to editing, as the previous clip showed. Lifting part of a recording and relocating it is easy, stretching the on-screen representation of the wave to find a precise edit point is easy, deleting part of a recording is easy.

And these are just three examples of how wonderful it is to edit using good software. There are many more. But there is a downside. With on-screen editing it is possible to make a singer or an actor sound much better than he/she actually is. I know because I’ve done it.

So, as technology develops, we replace old skills with new ones because it’s the obvious thing to do and we old timers are left on the shore watching the tide go out. But that’s OK. We can live with that.

Note on Audio Cassettes

One thing cassettes cannot do is make recordings of broadcast quality. There are two reasons for this: the width of the tape and the speed at which it passes the record/replay heads. The size of a cassette tape is determined by the size of the cassette. The width of the tape is only 0.15 inches (3.81mm). This narrow width has to accommodate four tracks – the left and right channels of Side A and the left and right channels of Side B. And here we meet a misconception arising from the use of the word ‘Side’. All four tracks are actually on the same side of the tape because audio tape is only recordable on one side.

As if this isn’t demanding enough, each of these four tracks has to be separated, otherwise the listener would experience crosstalk – two tracks being played at once and one of them might be heard backwards. In short, very little tape is available for each track. So let’s come up with an idea which makes this bad situation even worse. The tape crawls past the heads at a mere 1 7/8 inches per second. The result is noise, because too much information is being crammed onto too little tape.

Compare this to an open reel machine using one or two inch tape passing the heads at 15 inches per second. Here there is ample room for the information being recorded, it is no longer crammed onto tiny amounts of tape and there is no problem with noise.

Noise reduction systems were designed deal with the cassette noise problem. The best known of these by a long way are the various versions from Dolby Laboratories, founded by Ray Dolby. They are very ingenious, though to my ear the results, while far less noisy, don’t quite correspond to the original sounds being recorded. But few people buying a commercially recorded audio cassette of the Grateful Dead have ever heard the original so they aren’t likely to notice.

 

 

A Crowded Marketplace

At this time of year where I live, you can hardly walk along the street without dodging people with suitcases on wheels, many of them young. Quite a few of these seasonal visitors are hoping to make a name for themselves by showcasing their talent, which often involves trying to be funny. But however good they are, this can only work if people come to see their show. And so we have a serious outbreak of posters.

These railings at St Patrick’s Square bear a heavy load, as do many other places such as Chambers Street and the South Bridge.

Those responsible for marketing and publicity often try to make their charges stand out from the crowd by having them adopt a zany expression and even zanier posture. But sometimes they do come up with an arresting image.

 

So what do we make of this one? It’s a steam iron, no dloubt, but on this occasion Miss Clarke is supplying the steam. Are we hooked? Just in case the image isn’t sufficient, someone called Jordan Gray is quoted as claiming that the Sian Clarke Experience is a “Funny and Terrifying Anus Tightening Mind F*ck.” I don’t know about you, but I can get along just fine without Miss Clarke having this effect on my anus. Ultimately, though,  the only way to know if this advertising is effective is to discover how many people turn up for the show each night.

For those of us who write books and try to sell them the process, though not so obvious, is similar. We don’t compete with each other by displaying large clover blow-ups side by side on railings, but our titles can be found next to each other in bookshops and – more akin to the St Patrick’s Square situation – side by side on web pages.

Rules for Writers

Over the last few years there have been many posts on this subject. Usually, the emphasis is on what to avoid. For example, the aspiring writer should avoid adjectives, adverbs, verbs ending in ‘ing’ and the passive voice. It has also been suggested that question marks should be avoided, so presumably questions should too. Not so helpful when your detective is interrogating a suspect.

In some cases, writers are pulling our legs with their suggestions. For example, Margaret Atwood tells us not to take a pen on a plane because it might leak. So we should take a pencil. Which she then qualifies by saying we should take two in case the first one breaks. Mildly witty, but not so helpful. Stephen King’s advice to writers is well known and easily found online, so let us consider instead what Elmore Leonard has to say on the subject.

His first rule is never to open a book with weather. This may be well advised since the weather, in daily life, is often relegated to small talk. Those with nothing else to say, comment on the wind and rain.

His second rule is to avoid prologues. Some prologues are clearly designed as hooks to lure the reader in, but Leonard would probably say ‘just get on with it.’ There will be exceptions, but this advice is probably good.

His next rule concerns the handling of dialogue. ‘Never use a verb other than said to carry dialogue.’ There is something to be said for this one too if it discourages us from using verbs at one remove. ‘I give up,’ she sighed. Maybe she did sigh but she definitely spoke.

Next, on an associated topic, he advises us never to use an adverb to modify the verb said. ‘I’m cashing in my chips,’ Victor said vehemently. Leonard would strike the ‘vehemently’. You can too if you like. One group of people who have taken this advice to heart, though in the worst possible way, is tennis players who, when interviewed, often state their intention to ‘play aggressive.’ This habit of reducing adverbs to adjectives is never recommended in indirect speech, though it might occasionally happen that one of your less-well-educated characters speaks in this way. Tennis, anyone?

His next rules deal with excessive use of exclamation marks, avoidance of words such as ‘suddenly’, and limiting the use of regional dialects. Then we have his injunction to avoid detailed descriptions of characters, places and things. Why? Well, we don’t want so much detail that the narrative flow grinds to a halt. On the other hand, some writers (not very many) are masters of descriptive writing, so if you are in this select group you might water down this advice.

Referring to the essay in which he expounded these rules Leonard said: “My most important rule is one that sums up the 10: If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” Note that he said ‘sounds’ like writing, not ‘reads’ like writing. This is important for two reasons. The first is that what we write should read well. If you have trouble reading out loud a passage you have written there is more work to be done. If you are aiming for an audio book as well this is even more important.

The second reason why this matters is punctuation. There is a set of conventions governing punctuation of the written word, but I have usually found it helpful to mark up scripts for reading aloud, and as often as not these punctuation points diverge from the convention. For example, my version of Word often tells me that a comma isn’t needed at a certain place. Well, strictly speaking it may not be, but if it helps the talent reading it to the mic it can save several takes.

Another habit your software may have is pointing out that a certain phrase might be more succinct: where you have used five words three would be enough. And this may be the case, but your slighter longer expression might carry an emphasis which the shorter version lacks. And then there is the question of rhythm. The shorter version may lack the rhythm of your original. Ultimately, these are questions of style and are, or should be, under the control of the author rather than software.

How relevant are rules for a writer hoping to be published? While some might cite the old adage that rules are there to be broken, this would not be safe at the outset of a writer’s career. Keeping to reasonable rules is more likely to result in a marketable product. No publisher would consider a book which shows a lack of competence in, and respect for, basic writing skills.

But, as was pointed out at the beginning of this post, rules for writers are forever telling you what you should avoid. What they never tell you is what you should actually do. The truth is, we must all work this out for ourselves.

Decay

In the relatively recent past there was a hotel in our neighbourhood, and an excellent place it was to go for a meal. Then Covid came along, bookings were cancelled and the owners decided to call it a day. No longer young, they could afford to wind the business up, though many others in the hospitality business weren’t so fortunate.

The building still stands but hasn’t been looked after of late; there is no one to deal with the pine cones.


Nature is starting to reclaim the garden and that’s no bad thing. As for the building itself, left to its own devices, it would gradually have fallen into disrepair. But now it seems some have decided to speed the process up by attacking it. Why would they do this, what’s in it for them? I have no idea.

But a sly peek through the front door into the hall reveals that not everything has been removed. How about that?

The Stockholm Octavo – Review

The book begins in Stockholm in the year 1791 and the octavo of the title is a form of divination by playing card through which a possible future is mapped out for a given individual by the selection of eight cards. The cards are not from a normal pack, each being a picture which will require interpretation. In this case, an octavo is provided for a civil servant, Emil Larsson, by one Mrs Sparrow, who is not Swedish but French. The author has provided illustrations of the relevant cards so that we may see them for ourselves.

Mrs Sparrow is not only French but an ardent monarchist determined that no harm shall befall Louis 16th or, for that matter, King Gustav III of Sweden. However, Gustav is intent on democratising Sweden to such an extent that a number of aristocrats feel imperilled and have begun to plot against him. There are several conspirators, but the one we meet in this book is Kristina Elizabet Louisa Uzanne, herself an aristocrat and referred to by all as The Uzanne. This lady has recently lost her husband but has now turned to power play in a big way.

The author has paid great attention to detail and not only with respect to playing cards. Fans feature in this book and, as a major part of the plot, they are also described in great detail. Likewise, what people are wearing and the surroundings they inhabit are fully realised.

None of these things, by themselves, would make this a good book if it were not for the characters, several of whom are memorable. The Uzanne will stop at nothing and sacrifice anyone to achieve her objectives, Mrs Sparrow is taken up with the theory and practice of the octavo and also with running a gambling house, and there are two other women of note, both of them young. One is Anna Maria Plomgren, whom you would not want to meet on a dark night – though the author, through her back story, gives some explanation for her cut-throat character. Then there is Johanna Bloom, who knows a thing or two about the apothecary’s art. Both of these young women are drawn into The Uzanne’s plans to their own great danger. As for the men we have Emil himself, Master Frederik Lind, and the master fan-maker Christian Nordén, who also has knowledge of octavos.

The narrative alternates between first and third person, the first person chapters being told by Emil Larsson. The book is carefully structured and many of the scenes have great dramatic impact.

The only reservation I have about this excellent novel is the machinery, of which there is a great deal: cards and what they look like, examples of octavos, descriptions of fans and their use. And each chapter is headed by a list of sources. Now it is true that when writing in the first person an author should be able to answer the question ‘how does my narrator know this?’ But when writing in the third the author knows everything and does not need to account for her knowledge to anyone.

Though it did not require so much heavy lifting as it has been given, this is a fine book by a talented writer.

 

 

 

 

The Power of Negative Thinking

It is always assumed that negative thoughts are bad for mental health and there are clearly times when they are. For example, being unable to rid the mind of a specific negative thought for days, hours or weeks is likely to be harmful. The longer it takes up residence the harder it may be, like an unwanted lodger, to show it the door. Or it might, as it were, create a well-trodden path which it refuses to abandon. A phrase like neural pathway comes to mind, though how medically accurate this is I don’t know.

As a consequence of this, there are many authors out there (life coaches, persons of faith, shrinks, gurus, swamis and the like) who advocate positive thinking and extol methods by which this may be encouraged. I note that these books are often categorized as to whether they are aimed at men or women and suspect (I’m too indolent to count) that more are aimed at women than men. Why might that be? As a rule, women give more thought to such things, and those of them who live with men will sometimes have a stronger incentive.

Meanwhile, here are a couple of positive thoughts to help us through this vale of tears. Firstly, Abraham Lincoln:

“Whatever you are, be a good one.”  

Nice one, Abraham. So how would a rapist, swindler or a Vladimir Putin live up to that? It doesn’t bear thinking about. Moving quickly on to Tupac:

“Reality is wrong, dreams are for real.”

If reality is wrong and dreams are real, then dreams are wrong, right Tupac?

It would not only be possible but easy to expose many such statements of the positive to a negative critique, but we would not want to remove their crutches from people who really need them to get along. What would be the point?

But it seems that ridding the brain of negative thoughts is to be encouraged. Take Eliminate Negative Thinking by Derek Howell, for example, a book which specifically targets negative thoughts. An obvious question arises. How effective are such books for those who read them? I don’t believe that social scientists have applied themselves to answering this question, and it would a very difficult task to attempt, but a certain person I know well has an impressive library of self-help books yet has confined himself/herself to the bedroom for the last several years. I already hear the reply, Ah, yes, but I’d even worse off without them. And there is no way to test this, so life goes on.

Yet we should at least ask whether all negative thoughts are bad. Veronika sits in the graveyard thinking I am totally worthless because her friends have dropped her from seventeen social media platforms. It is theoretically possible that she is totally worthless but highly unlikely. Snap out of it, Veronica! Meanwhile her sister, Verity, interrogating her newsfeed on the subject of Ukraine, comes to the view that there is no level of base behaviour to which some will not sink. Since there is ample evidence of this over thousands of years, Verity is entitled to subscribe to this negative view on the grounds that negative though it may be it is also realistic.

A phrase that struck me many moons ago was penned by Thucydides – Human nature being what it is. Say no more, mate, we get the message.

Though given to negative thoughts, I tend to keep them to myself. However realistic they may be, they don’t go down well. And that’s OK, I can live with that. The fact that I can also die with that is neither here nor there.

She’s Standing Outside

Kate is a TV reporter who confirms that she is standing outside Windsor Castle. And it’s true. Yes, we can see that, but what we can’t see is why she’s doing it. Is the castle about to make a Major Statement? Unlikely. Will a member of the royal family pop out to offer privileged insights into the current state of play regarding Harry and Meghan, Queen Camilla, or that revered scion of the royal establishment, Andrew Albert Christian Edward? Just as unlikely.

We frequently find reporters outside buildings including, Buckingham Palace, 10 Downing Street, New Scotland Yard, the Ministry of Defence and Stormont Castle, where the Legislative Assembly is seldom to be found in session these days. What lies behind this behaviour?

Well, it wouldn’t happen in radio, but I assume this habit is to show television viewers that the reporters of Sky, the BBC and so on, are always on the spot – the spot being where the action is or, more frequently, where it is not. So forget about the wasted time and effort and admire the visual credentials of the broadcast media.

However, as misreported by those same media, Downing Street, unlike Windsor Castle, actually does make statements. This is a way of avoiding the attribution of the statements in question to actual people and saving them having to defend them. It’s gone on for so many years now that most of us take it for granted, According to Downing Street . . . But it’s an evasion. I have examined several pictures of 10 Downing Street and there is no sign of a mouth on any of them.

There is one major exception where standing outside makes sense. Reporters often gather outside courts of law where a judgement is expected. This is especially true in contentious cases where litigants and lawyers will spill outside onto the pavement after the conclusion of a trial to read  prepared statements and sometimes answer questions. Despite the verdict of the court, Captain Sparrow stoutly asseverates his innocence of the charges and intends to lodge an appeal at the earliest opportunity. We’ve never Heard the like.

The saying a picture is worth a thousand words is as popular as it is untrue. Leaving aside the fact that that it has never been easier to doctor visual images than it is now, engaging in a discussion involving concepts can be accomplished elegantly with words – not so easily with oil on canvas. Take death. An artist or photographer can show us one or more dead bodies, the result of death. But what of death itself, death as a concept? To take but one example, how do we define death when it comes to deciding when to switch off the ventilator? To deal with such questions only words will do.

I could easily have sprinkled throughout this post images of Windsor Castle, 10 Down Street and New Scotland Yard, not to mention mugshots of Prince Edward (is that really his hand?) and Johnny Depp. but since they would have added nothing at all to the meaning, chose not to do so.

Despite the fact that they are often subverted by politicians and cheating partners, words remain the best medium of communication we have. But I would say that, wouldn’t I.

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