Hard Winter

I've been told several times that I should brace for a harsh winter. When I asked how they could predict such a thing, one person replied that the caterpillars were black instead of brown, and black caterpillars predict a harsh winter. Some of the caterpillars are black. Some are brown. Some are both.

This is the kind of thing I want to know about early Victorian England. The little legends. The magical thinking that seems normal, everyday. It's a reminder of how conditioned, urban, and modern my mindset is.

Letters From Beyond The Grave

Have you noticed how often, in books or television, an orphaned hero or heroine gets a last letter from a dead parent?  "Dear Child," it often begins, "if you are reading this, something bad has happened to me.  Here's some advice you might find handy." It's often hard to suspend disbelief about the arrival of such letters.  The parent writes it and arranges for the child to receive it at a far-off yet opportune moment, always exhibiting a prescient awareness of events years in the future while blind to the disaster right at their doorstep.  Yet I completely understand the impulse to orchestrate such a message; often it's that fleeting, heartfelt connection to a dead loved one that motivates the hero/heroine to continue his/her journey.

A 2010 episode of This American Life just popped up in my podcast queue, Held Hostage.  I just finished listening to the first act, which ended on a rather grim note.  It described how people kidnapped in Colombia might find themselves held hostage for years, and so many people were held hostage at any given time that weekly radio shows sprang up so that family of the kidnapped could deliver messages over the airwaves, wishing their loved ones courage and strength in capitivity.

One of the stories was about a political prisoner who was held hostage for eleven years, with an interview from his teenaged daughter - a girl who'd never really known him.  Ultimately the Colombian government attempted a rescue, forcing the kidnappers to beat a hasty retreat.  So hasty, in fact, that they cut loose their excess baggage - their hostages - executing them all.  But they found a diary with the executed political prisoner that he'd kept over the eleven years of his capitivity, with messages to his family, drawings of what he thought his daughter might look like.

Heartbreaking, and for once real.  I'm flagging the story for myself and any other writers out there looking for a way to send plausible and emotionally wrenching letters to their characters from beyond the grave.



"You have no other choice, you must go on"

Do you listen to Radiolab?  Because, if not, you totally should.  It's one of my favorite podcasts.  They did a great program called The Bad Show, all about why people do bad things.  A perpetually fascinating topic, especially to anyone who's ever tried to invent a villain. I suggest listening to the Radiolab show, which is fascinating and entertaining.

On Clues

Khajuraho is my favorite place in India so far.  Why?  Well, the UNESCO heritage site here features some very fine sculptures which only a very discriminating art lover can appreciate, like this one:

You'd never believe how many very discriminating art lovers there are around here.

The sex scenes bring in tourists by the busloads and I admit, they're pretty awesome.  I mean, how long did it take to carve that thing up there?  A year?  More?  Imagine waking up every morning for a month thinking, "Gotta get those buttocks just right..."

The sex scenes win for shock value but my favorites were these two:

Doesn't it catch something essential about coupledom?  The man and the woman have been interrupted in the middle of an embrace, and they shift their attention as one, in perfect harmony.  Physically, they fit together while mentally, they mirror one another.  Like a single organism.

The one above is just amazing.  The figure is twisted and exaggerated almost, but not quite, past the point of believability.  I love the ruffles and knots in the thin fabric wrapped around her waist, the musculature of her back and bottom.  There's such love of the human body in the sculpture, and the color of the stone is like flesh.

And while a lot of the figures are idealized, some of them have lovingly depicted little pooches: 

But here's why I'm writing this post.  After spending a few hours staring at these twisting, entwining, flexible sculptures, this tree:

I looked at it and I saw all the images that had been swarming around in my head, cocked hips and belly buttons and stretched necks.

Here's another snarl of trunk that had the same effect:

Here I can almost see a female figure in relief, breasts outthrust, a belly button pocking her narrow waist, and round hips.  Just like the sculptures on the walls.

Ordinarily I don't think I'd have seen anything in the tree at all, let alone anything lurid, but I'd been primed.  All the crazy couplings I'd been looking at were swarming around in my brain and I was ready to have them pop out, fully formed, at the slightest suggestion.

There's a lesson here about misleading an audience.  If you want to give someone a certain idea, if you want them to think, say, a tree is a naked body, all you need to do is foreshadow it right.  The secret is in making the right preparation, so that readers will jump to the wrong conclusion.


The hero of my most recent novel, Adam, is a bare-knuckled boxer.  I did a fair bit of reading about boxing during the Regency period, but I also read about boxing and fighting in general. One of the most delightful books I read for research purposes was The Sweet Science, by A.J. Liebling.  It's a collection of essays that he wrote for the New Yorker in the 1950s about boxing, named by Sports Illustrated the best book about sports of all time.  And for good reason!  It's beautifully written, deeply intelligent and absolutely hilarious.

There is one particular snippet from The Sweet Science (a term coined by a Regency author, Pierce Egan) that I find myself thinking of quite often, for its scathing perfection.  I'll quote it here:

One fight writer, reporting the victory, said Olson was a "burned-out hollow shell," which is like merging Pelion and Ossa, or Ford and General Motors, in the cliché business.  He must have meant the shell of a broiled lobster after a shore dinner. (The Sweet Science, A.J. Liebling, 74)

That's a day-long writing workshop right there, in a single paragraph.