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mayflower988
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I'm doing Camp NaNoWriMo starting Monday, and I'm going to be writing a historical fiction novel set in medieval times. Does anyone have any advice on how to go about researching for a novel? Right now I'm just kind of wandering around on the internet, trying to remember to take notes. One problem I'm having is finding sites that are informative about medieval times. Another problem on the other side of the coin is getting overwhelmed when I do find a site that has information. Once I find it, I generally don't know what to do with it. And I have always had trouble figuring out what information is important, i.e. knowing what I'm going to need and being able to identify it in the midst of what I'm reading. I don't remember if I posted about this before, but I'd appreciate any tips, tricks, advice, suggestions, etc. about doing research for a novel. Thanks, everyone!
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Robert Nowall
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If you're really desperate, there are always books about the subject. Non-fiction books about the period are always rich in details. The one that comes to my mind is A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchmann...a glance on Amazon-dot-com shows several books about Life in Medieval Times.

But you're probably too busy and time is too short to go on a book-hunting expedition...Wikipedia has a number of articles on the Middle Ages that might be of some use to you, at least for a few gleaning of details.

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Jim Aikin
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Rewind the clock to February and spend about four months buying and reading books, that would be my only suggestion. I've written a couple of historical novels (neither of which has been published ... maybe someday I'll do rewrites), and I have a whole shelf of research books for each.

The thing about historical fiction is that EVERY detail has to be checked -- food, clothing, marriage customs, transportation, the economy, sanitary facilities, building materials, locks and keys, available tools, medicine, religion, burial customs, and on and on. Not to rain on your parade, but I wouldn't have the courage to undertake a project like this on such a tight timetable.

One alternative to consider would be to create an alternate-world fantasy novel. You have considerably more freedom to improvise the messy details. You can make it as Medieval as all get-out and not have to worry about stepping in a mud puddle.

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Meredith
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I'd be leary of doing ALL my research on the internet. Sure, there's a lot of great information. There's also a lot of misinformation. Often, the trick in being able to tell the difference is already knowing something about the subject.

Last year, I wrote an historical fantasy/alternate history set primarily in medieval Greenland. There are, literally, NO sources. But almost all the Greenlanders came from Iceland and there's a lot of material about that. I got lucky. I found a book that had the purpose of explaining saga-age Greenland in order to make the sagas understandable. Perfect. That, and the sagas themselves--Eric the Red's Saga and Greenlander Saga mostly, but not exclusively--provided most of my research.

Now, I did go to Wikipedia for some unexpected questions like: What flowering plants can be found in Greenland? If they're fishing, what are they fishing for?

That last question led me to information about the Greenland Shark, which then got a place in my story. [Smile]

Things I took notes about because I was sure I was going to use them, ended up not being important. Other things, like the Greenland Shark, ended up being useful. So I'd say research as widely as you can and stay open to whatever you find.

It may be too late for you to do this research before Camp NaNo. If so, I'd say write the story, as much as you can, and be open to changing things based on your research as you revise. Be prepared for surprises. [Smile]

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rcmann
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Don't research anything you don't have to. Write your story using generic information that everyone knows. For example, every commoner in the middle ages was dirt poor, had lousy teeth, didn't bathe very often if at all, used an axe to cut their firewood if they had one. Or used peat to heat with if they didn't have trees around. They lived in fear of bandits, supernatural terrors, and the noble predators that stalked the land. That's solid info you don't need to research. They also lived in hovels.

Middle ages nobles lived in drafty rock piles whose only virtue lay in the fact that they were good at keeping out pointy things. They didn't eat much better than the peasants, they just had a little more of it. They were invariably mean as a snake by modern standards, but they thought they were the salt of the earth and were willing to cut the guts out of anyone who said otherwise.

(Of course, this varied by location and time period, some places were better than others.)

For the rest of it, you can look it up as it becomes necessary. You don't really need to know the details of how a blacksmith in those days went about renovating a worn axe head unless the plot calls for it. Nor do you need to give a detailed description of the saddle a knight used. Just remember that the stirrup didn't make it to Europe until fairly late in the middle ages.

If you pace yourself, and break it down into bite-sized pieces, it won't be so bad.

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extrinsic
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Medieval times or the Middle Ages spans a millenium, one thousand years between 500 CE and 1500 CE. Consider narrowing the focus to a narrow era that suits the central dramatic complication's larger setting and milieu. For example, the Middle Ages led into the Renaissance.

A prime mover for the Renaissance was mercantilism, among many other factors that ended the dark times of the sometimes-called Dark Ages. They were dark for a host of reasons, among them the collapses of Roman empires, Moors and Arabs and Persians overrunning large parts of Western and Eastern Europe, distrust of strangers, the feudal system, the iron grip of the Roman church's predeterminism, the Crusades, continental war, pestilence, famine, and highwaymen out on the open roads, pirates on the waterways and high seas.

Consider choosing a narrow historic time, persons, and places, and situation and wrapping the scenario in the narrative. György Lukács' The Historic Novel, 1947, English translation 1961, suggests writing about fictional persons close to or peripheral to known historical figures, developing current-day relevance for reader appeal, and claims that historical fiction is invariably patriotic propoganda celebrating a culture's superiority's foundations or, more fashionable currently, a subversive pageantry undermining a dominant culture.

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mfreivald
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I like rcmann's suggestion. There's really no substitution for putting the time in and finding good resources, but you're on a (very aggressive) schedule, so you can still write a compelling story with the knowledge you have, look up the important things as you come to them, and rewrite the parts you need to after doing some good research later.

The biggest caveat to this approach, I think, is understanding the frames of mind of the people and particular culture of that time. If your characters and/or behaviors are widely accepted in your novel in a way that the Medieval world would reject, they will come off as contrived and unrealistic to anyone who knows better. For example, "Kingdom of Heaven" was a movie that was quite cartoonish in the way the main characters spoke like 21st century men rather than medieval ones. I couldn't take it seriously at all while watching it.

There are a number of easy-to-read books out there with titles like "The Medieval City," The Medieval Castle," "The Medieval Town," etc. B&N usually carries some of them. I've found them valuable in assisting the authentic flavor of my medieval-style fantasy. For myself, I would insist on a lot more rigor for a novel that was actually historic, but they could be good starting books for your research.

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MAP
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If you are writing about medieval England. I suggest buying or borrowing The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer. It gives us some idea of what day to day life wat like.
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MartinV
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Read good fiction for that time (just started reading Mongoliad and I'm impressed; Henryk Sienkiewicz's books are also great).

Read historical books (actual history books, not illustrated ones).

Certain video games are excellent for immersive purposes (Mount and Blade comes to mind; EB mod for Rome Total War for ancient times - comes with bibliography which I have researched extensively).

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Jim Aikin
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quote:
Originally posted by MartinV:
Certain video games are excellent for immersive purposes (Mount and Blade comes to mind; EB mod for Rome Total War for ancient times - comes with bibliography which I have researched extensively).

Maybe it's because I'm an old guy, but the idea of using video games for historical research -- well, let's just say that sounds to me like relying on TV commercials for nutritional advice when planning your grocery shopping.

There may be a few historically accurate video games out there -- I wouldn't know. But I'm pretty sure that the primary motivation of the illustrators who design the games is NOT historical accuracy. The whole point of the video game industry is to provide thrills, and most of the Medieval period was not about thrills.

I'll toss in one comment about the Medieval period, which I recall from some book or other. There are plenty of stories in history about kings and dukes taking offense at something and summoning their army to march off and smash the offending party. What the history books don't always emphasize is that a lot of those kings and dukes were teenagers! The life expectancy was lower than today, and the rules of primogeniture meant that when your dad died, you would become the next duke even if you were only 14. They had no concept that people reached the age of legal responsibility at 21.

So I don't know. Maybe the entire Medieval period is just one long video game....

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rcmann
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A valid point. I have spoken to people who don't realize than even up to the 1940's, many parts of the world had a life expectancy in the 35-40 range. In 1900 in America, I think the life expectancy was still below 60. In medieval times very few people made it long enough to have gray hair (thought toothless was another story), which is why "graybeard" became synonymous with "wise elder". Even though some men start to get gray beards at around 35.

Also, in modern America circa 1930 +/- it was till not unusual at all for a girl to get married at 14 and a boy at 16. In middle ages Europe, Many people had already buried more than one child. The infant mortality rate was obscene.

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Reziac
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I'd suggest an afternoon reading Life in a Medieval Village by Frances and Joseph Gies:
http://www.amazon.com/books/dp/0060920467
The era wasn't actually as primitive or uncultured as we moderns would like to think; in particular the legal system was highly developed.

See also their companion works, Life in a Medieval Castle/City (or the omnibus with Village, Daily Life in Medieval Times)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frances_and_Joseph_Gies

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extrinsic
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The hospitality practice of lodging at abbeys while traveling began about 1100 CE. Road houses did not exist until well into the renaissance era, when merchants needed them for their business trips.

Mercantilism, the exchange of goods arose soon after Marco Polo's landmark journey to the East, about a century after abbeys started lodging travelers. Abbeys had passing to excellent wines, ales, and fortified wines, but strong drink had not yet become common place, though it too dates to the time of Marco Polo. Anyone with an adequate vessel could make small beer, though, some spruce, birch, or maple tree sap collected in spring and fermented made a passable beer. A mite of barley for stonger beer or fruit for wine or cider also were enjoyed in freemen's homes. Bonded persons were prohibited from drinking but paid little heed to the prohibition. The water of the era was foul and not drank if any other libation was available.

Stocks and pillories, public whippings, floggings, strappings, birchings, canings, dunkings, yokings, etc., public humiliation and corporal punishment were common in the era across Europe for minor crimes and malfeasances, like disrespecting a superior, including a wife publicly disobeying her husband. Capital crimes extended from petty thievery to murder. Additionally, religious disobedience carried similar sentences.

Religion and practices during the era were minefields of strict obedience and a well-ordered hierarchy of social status based on predeterminism. Well-borne persons were believed to be ordained by grace and could do no evil no matter how evil by present-day standards. Low-borne persons were believed to be inherently wicked and evil and deserved punishment regularly regardless of having done nothing wicked.

Childrearing in the era by present-day standards would make any parent cringe if not cry with rage and sorrow. The proverbial swadling cloth newborns were wrapped in was intended to seal in wicked bodily emanations that might corrupt family members. An infant was bound in a swadling cloth, often fouled for long spans, at all times. Wet nurses were low-born women able to produce milk and nurse infants without risk of further corruption. Wet nurses were nannies too, surrogate mothers. Of course, low-borne families could not afford one.

All infants were dressed in gowns past the nursing age, and wore dresses until the age of five or so when boys began to wear shorts and, later, about age eight, trousers. Clothing of the era, of course, depended on station, but most everyone wore some kind of tunic indoors, and varying hem lengths, trousers for men, and hose and stockings. Both boys and girls who survived the early childhood illnesses were dressed, treated like, and considered adults in apprenticeship soon after age seven up through age eleven or twelve when puberty begins.

Blanche Paine's 1965 History of Costume contains a great deal of information about period dress.

Food stuffs generally were meat and grains or peas and porridges, the choicer cuts saved for the laird's table, the offal for villeins'. Barley and rye for the lower classes, wheat for the upperclasses, were common, oats, assorted beans similar to today's, though "pease" could be any of a number of cultivated and wild species from the era, none in taste, appearance, and preparation much like present-day cultivars. Salted fish were everyday fare. Game was plentiful on the lairds' tables but scarce in anyone else's diets. Assorted dulses, red seaweed or similar waterborne algaes, were common winter fare on low-borne people's tables.

A standard day's diet generally might include two or three pounds of meat, several pounds each of bread, beans, and vegetables or dulses, and several gallons of wine or beer. Lower-borne fares were far less meat intensive.

Medieval cuisine was also governed by a gamut of superstitious beliefs, ranging from a belief that coarse and cheap food best fed the lower classes and expensive and refined food best fed the upper classes. Mixing class diets was thought to be deletrious for anyone. Wet or dry, hot or cold food, depending on which bodily humor was being fed for best effect, were choices made by time of day, well-being or illness, day of the week, season of the moon, season of the year, and so on.

Just a few bits; there's much, much more where that came from.

[ July 01, 2013, 01:13 AM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Pyre Dynasty
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I'd say before you start researching narrow down the region and time. Use a fudge margin of 100 years/50 miles. Much was the same across the board but details are what you need to write a story.

But if you're doing a NaNo style thing: only do research when you need ideas. When you hit a point where you know you will need more info put a #(plus a note telling you what you need to research) and move on. Get your characters doing the things you want them to and add the details later.

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extrinsic
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Old English was spoken and written in England for the first half of the MIddle Ages, Middle English for the second half. Old English retained the guttural consonant and vowel sounds of its Indo Germanic roots. The rest of Western Europe was a hodge-podge of emerging Romance languages. England to varying degrees looked to the continent for cultural direction, which is one factor that inspired the softening of the language that became Middle English and later further softening that became Modern English.

The word graeg is an example. Early use likely pronounced the word as gray-ese or gray-oh. Two different surviving Modern English variants gray and grey come from the word. Another, cɣing, pronounced king, is the common spelling of the Old English term.

The second person singular and plural pronoun "you" was not introduced until the late Middle English era. Thee and thou are also Middle English. Old English used a word spelling similar to Latin's "tu" or spelled thü. Pronunciation was either soft or hard T.

Much of what is known today about Old English pronunciation derives from residual dialect features surviving into MIddle and Modern English, Old English poetry rhymes, and Welsh dialects which emerged from assorted Celtic and Old English dialects that give clues to how syllables sounded. Copius writing survives, though, and by no means was standardized from writer to writer, which didn't come to pass at all until late in the eighteenth century. Most people were illiterate anyway, except for clergy and persons educated by clergy to become clergy or nobility.

[ July 01, 2013, 01:17 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Jim Aikin
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quote:
Originally posted by extrinsic:
England to varying degrees looked to the continent for cultural direction, which is one factor that inspired the softening of the language that became Middle English and later further softening that became Modern English.

I was taught that the culprit was the Norman Conquest (13th century). For 200 years after that, the nobility in England spoke French, while the commoners spoke Anglic (old English). But this created gigantic confusion, because the genders of nouns were not the same in French as in English. The result was, after 200 years, nobody could remember which nouns were male, which were female, and which were neuter. So the noun endings were dropped. We still have the remnant, in the form of a silent 'e' at the ends of many nouns (house, goose, and so on), but the endings were no longer spoken aloud.

I don't know about the 2nd person pronoun in old English, but I can tell you that in Middle English, thee and thou were the singular forms (equivalent to German du). Ye and you were the plural forms. As in German, the polite form of address was to use the plural. (In German, the polite form of du is sie, which is 3rd person plural -- literally, "they.") As time went on, the English familiar forms of the 2nd person singular were dropped, and the polite forms became the universal. This is relevant, because if you're going to use thee, thou, thy, and thine at all, you need to know who is addressing whom! You also need to know that thou is nominative case (the subject of a sentence) and thee is objective case. The easy way to remember this is that thee rhymes with me, which is also objective case.

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Meredith
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quote:
Originally posted by Jim Aikin:
quote:
Originally posted by extrinsic:
England to varying degrees looked to the continent for cultural direction, which is one factor that inspired the softening of the language that became Middle English and later further softening that became Modern English.

I was taught that the culprit was the Norman Conquest (13th century).
Okay, you really do need to do some research. When did 1066 (the date of the Conquest) become the 13th Century? Get a good timeline, if nothing else.
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extrinsic
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Gender and status markers are conventional in neolithic languages, like Indo Germanic, and first generation languages that evolved from them, like Latin, and old Greek. Modern Greek and Spanish retain many of them. Modern French let many of them fade. Modern English has fewer of them than many languages, yet still retains a few standouts.

Many English nobility and clergy spoke and wrote Old English, Greek, German, and Latin during the era, as well as French.

The Normam Conquest did indeed conquer England in the eleventh century. The Normans were Norsemen, North Men, once upon a time, Vikings from Norway.

An argument could be made that the Middle Ages' "darkness" peaked in the eleventh century. Many influential events occurred in that century and the twelfth century that turned the tide of Western decline initiated by the sputtering falls of Roman empires.

If I were writing a novel about the period, I'd probably start somewhere in the twelfth century maritime history of Wales. Perhaps about Madog ab Owain Gwynedd, who Welsh oral traditions claim journeyed to the New World circa 1170 CE and settled somewhere along a Mississippi waterway.

Bernard Knight's Madoc, Prince of America, 1977, St. Martin's Press, tells the tale in one perspective, a Middle Ages historical fiction model worthy of emulation.

[ July 01, 2013, 05:28 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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mayflower988
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Thanks, everyone. I think I might do what Jim and Meredith suggested and just do a fantasy world that happens to be fairly similar to medieval England. I probably won't have much time to research after Camp is over, since school starts back in August. rcmann, I liked your suggestion about using general knowledge about the era as a way to get the right atmosphere for the book. mfreivald, I'm glad you mentioned understanding the mindset and culture of medieval people. I've been trying to work on my characterization. Maybe I'll focus my research on what the people were like and how they thought in medieval England, and then not worry as much about researching the specifics. After all, I can just use whatever makes sense to me if I'm writing about a fantasy world.
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Jim Aikin
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quote:
Originally posted by Meredith:
Okay, you really do need to do some research. When did 1066 (the date of the Conquest) become the 13th Century? Get a good timeline, if nothing else.

Yeah, yeah. Working from memory here, and my memory isn't what it once was ... or at least, it isn't what my memory tells me it once was. :-)

But the bit about the ruling class speaking French and the loss of the noun declensions, that part is not in doubt.

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micmcd
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There are a few books out there that specialize in telling writers the type of data you need not to look like an idiot about horses, armor, dresses, etc.

The Complete Guide to Writing Fantasy, vol 2 was particularly useful for me, as were the companion volumes.

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micmcd
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Ugh - a mistake. The book I mean to suggest was The Writer's Complete Fantasy Reference, which is just what it says it is—a reference to all things fantasy. The other book is super helpful and also has tons of reference data, but this one is sort of my "what are the metal things on the elbows called and how do they work" go-to-reference.
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mayflower988
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Thanks so much, micmcd! That will help me to keep my fictional world believable. I want readers to be able to suspend disbelief. The fantasy genre will now allow me to color outside the lines, so to speak, but I can't get too far outside, or else my readers will throw my book away in disgust. For example, I can't have my characters using computers. :) Now how do I write a world that sound like medieval England without making my readers think that it's supposed to be medieval England? I don't want anyone sending me disgruntled letters saying, "you put X into the novel, when England didn't have X until much later! You're a horrible historical fiction author!" I don't want to have to send letters back saying "guys, it's not supposed to be historical fiction." Postage is way too expensive these days. :D So how do I write a world similar to medieval England without making it seem like an attempt to represent medieval England?
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extrinsic
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quote:
Originally posted by mayflower988:
So how do I write a world similar to medieval England without making it seem like an attempt to represent medieval England?

Fantasy and medieval England applicable to present-day relevance is an approach. Any narrative must be meaningful, hence relevant, to an audience.

Take Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. What made it relevant to its audience when it was published and still timeless, relevant today? The introduction of modern technology to a medieval society: advanced weapons technology mostly, but also enlightened social values, equality, that were alien to and contentious for the culture. Technology and culture influence each other, their respective societies, and reflect their societies.

While the computer wasn't around back in the Middle Ages, the society nonetheless had equivalent information disemination practices; town criers, bossy and demanding overlords, clergy, gossip, rumor, legend, superstition, questionable beliefs, folklore. Fantasy's folkloristic roots, as a matter of fact, were all about information disemination, teaching people how to behave socially, for one.

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mayflower988
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Hmm, good point, extrinsic. That may actually play in well to what I've been thinking for this novel - there's an underlying theme/conflict in my MC of crippling fear and anxiety in contrast to a desperate loneliness and need for more in her life than what she's been able to get within the walls of the convent. (She's a nun.) :) Maybe I can use the heightened medieval sense of propriety, dwarfed by what constitutes real danger. If that doesn't make sense, I apologize. It's late, and I feel like I've been writing and critiquing all day.
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micmcd
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Those books aren't to make a perfect medieval England world out of your book, it's just so you don't look silly by saying your character travelled 200 miles on horseback in a day (unless he was leaving a trail of about 20 dead horses in his wake and transferring to pre-stationed ones along the route, which must have been perfectly tended road).
You should also know how armor does and does not protect (full strength spear to the chest == dead, even if armored), when you would and wouldn't wear it, etc.

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mayflower988
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Yeah, I'm glancing over the table of contents on Amazon right now. I'll have to look this up at the library. Just the excerpt alone was really helpful.
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rcmann
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A lot of this is simple common sense. All you have to do is spend a few minutes thinking about it. People back then weren't that different from us. Their culture was different, but they had the same basic needs.

Horses were still horses, too. You can always pick up a phone and call a local riding club, or find some farmer who owns horses, and ask them how much a horse can carry, or how many hours a day it can work, or how often it needs to stop and be watered.

Just FYI, 18th century American frontier accounts report that it took 6 days to travel from the southern shore of Lake Erie to the Ohio river, a distance of 225-250 miles.

The Roman Legions reportedly were capable of doing something like fifty miles per day in an emergency, although naturally they couldn't keep it up over a long stretch. Modern military men can do that much too, wearing a full field pack and carrying a weapon, but it isn't something that any sane commander would make them od fi there was any choice about it.

On his march through Georgia, Sherman's forces averaged twenty miles per day. That's including all men, horses, supply wagons, camp followers, etc.

I am taking this one with a pound of salt, but legend has it that an Apache warrior could run 70 miles per day.

A huge number of things have not changed from the days of the Sumerians. You still need dry tinder to start a fire, whether it be in a fireplace or a patch of bare ground.

Running water is still the cleanest, but even it can be contaminated. Prior to antibiotics, even a small cut could kill you. I read a newspaper report, from the original paper that I found in my grandmothers things, dated sometime in the 1910's. It told of a woman who died from a boil on her face that became septic an advanced into blood poisoning.

Most of it is things you already know, or can easily find out in a hundred places, if you don't let it scare you.

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extrinsic
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Hi, mayflower998,

An easy to read but complicated to appreciate page on theme:

http://theliterarylink.com/theme.html

Or several more pages close to the meaning of "theme-conflict" from the Ayn Rand Lexicon;

Theme (Literary)
http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/theme.html

Plot-Theme from the page linked below: "A 'plot-theme' is the central conflict or 'situation' of a story—a conflict in terms of action, corresponding to the theme and complex enough to create a purposeful progression of events." Or in my lexicon and derived in part from that of Webster's definition for denouement, a dramatic complication: Denouement, "1. the final outcome of the main dramatic complication in a literary work. 2. the outcome of a complex sequence of events."

http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/plot-theme.html

A nun with "an underlying theme/conflict in my MC of crippling fear and anxiety in contrast to a desperate loneliness and need for more in her life than what she's been able to get within the walls of the convent" suggests to me a theme of identity-crisis relation.

From the first Web page above:

"2. The Individual in Society
a. Society and a person's inner nature are always at war.
b. Social influences determine a person's final destiny.
c. Social influences can only complete inclinations formed by Nature.
d. A person's identity is determined by place in society.
e. In spite of the pressure to be among people, an individual is essentially alone and frightened."

But those are only generic themes. More specificity I believe is called for, but may present during draft writing. And a close connection between the focused theme and the overall dramatic complication. Say "A person's identity is determined by place in society." Nuns were cloistered during the Middle Ages with only a few human contacts through other cloistered nuns, an abbess being their worldly connection to satisfying mundane (earthly) needs.

Adding in "the heightened medieval sense of propriety, dwarfed by what constitutes real danger," seems timely and relevant for today's audiences. That is a common and appealing Postmodern theme of challenging and questioning presupposed notions of propriety when exigent circumstances require and yet that they are a test of faith.

Edited to add: A discussion of theme as relates to writing, for writers, not literary analysis and criticism, for literature scholars, nor literature response compositions, for literature students, is stirring in the backmatter of my mind. Once I get past the avalanche of work that's come into my queue this week.

[ July 03, 2013, 01:45 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Jim Aikin
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Bear in mind, however: Ayn Rand was a dreadful fiction writer.

She was also a dreadful and viciously harmful pseudo-philosopher, but that's off-topic. What you need to know as a writer is that Rand's philosophy had nasty effects on her fiction.

All of the characters in Atlas Shrugged (which I read when I was about 20) are either good, evil, or good but weak. And "good" is explicitly defined as "caring nothing for the needs of others." Rand was a sociopath, and proud of it. I haven't read her lexicon, but there's no reason to, because I wouldn't touch it with a pole.

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extrinsic
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Ayn Rand, baring Gustav Freytag, is one of if not the only writer or in any way aestheticist who has as far as I know accessibly approached "theme" from a contemporary writer's writing perspective. I neither support or oppose her fiction writing openly. Since it is political rhetoric, I will also refrain from discussing her writing.

However, Rand has a few gems to offer writing-wise, if not for guidance, for one perspective on complex writing subjects that are open to critical, thoughtful comparison and contrast with other writers' wisdoms. I will turn over any and every writing stone I come across, regardless of whether I adopt, adapt, reinvent, reimagine, resist, or reject partially or outright a piece of writing guidance.

[ July 03, 2013, 04:11 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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Jim Aikin, I decided not to finish ATLAS SHRUGGED, so it is possible that I might be sympathetic to what you've said. However, discussion of published works should go in a different area.

And discussions of politics are not really welcome here at all, unless they can be tied directly to writing.

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posulliv
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extrinsic wrote:

quote:
I will turn over any and every writing stone I come across, regardless of whether I adopt, adapt, reinvent, reimagine, resist, or reject partially or outright a piece of writing guidance.
Amen.

I've enjoyed reading this thread because I'm not much of a researcher. Lately I've just been leaving notes in my first drafts like [what sort of gun would they have?] or [can a horse do that?] and trying to make sure that nothing critical in my story hinges on something I don't already know when I sit down to draft it. Most stories are about people and what they do, and why they do it. I figure I already know something about that regardless of the setting I choose.

If I subsequently discover a horse _can't do that_ then I just make up some circumstance in which it can, or figure out some other mechanism that makes up for the deficiency given the setting. Or I change "It took two days to cross the desert" to "It took two weeks to cross the desert", adjust the story's time line, and leave it at that. My story isn't about what a horse can or can't do. It's about people, and what they do, and why they do it.

Later on I go back and try to make sure the story seems believable given the setting, and I do the least amount of research necessary to satisfy my own standards of veracity.

[ July 03, 2013, 05:51 PM: Message edited by: posulliv ]

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mayflower988
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Thanks, extrinsic. I checked out that first page, and I think you're right, my theme comes mainly from #2, The Individual in Society. But I think #5, d, also comes into play: "A person grows only in so far as he or she must face a crisis of confidence or identity." There is an element of growth for my MC as she encounters situations that awaken fears within her and force her to decide how to relate to people - will she choose to trust or to isolate herself?
I liked this that you said as well: "Adding in "the heightened medieval sense of propriety, dwarfed by what constitutes real danger," seems timely and relevant for today's audiences. That is a common and appealing Postmodern theme of challenging and questioning presupposed notions of propriety when exigent circumstances require and yet that they are a test of faith." That sounds about right. Thanks. :)

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Jim Aikin
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quote:
Originally posted by Kathleen Dalton Woodbury:
Jim Aikin, I decided not to finish ATLAS SHRUGGED, so it is possible that I might be sympathetic to what you've said. However, discussion of published works should go in a different area.

And discussions of politics are not really welcome here at all, unless they can be tied directly to writing.

I knew I was probably pushing the envelope. However, someone else brought up some stuff of Rand's (or apparently so) in a link. I didn't bring her up -- I was just urging caution about taking her advice too seriously.

Rand's politics were so intimately intertwined with her fiction, that it's not really possible to mention one without mentioning the other. But yes, I'll be more cautious in future.

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rcmann
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Talking about time lines is a worthy subject. I am facing that very issue, among others, in my current book. It's a high fantasy set in a quasi-medieval universe. In addition to the primitive technology, my characters are involved in multiple intersecting plotlines. And most of them are traveling. Some of them are traveling by ship. Some of them are traveling by horse over open plains, then rolling hills. Some of them are traveling on foot through a forest, and one of them is doing all of the above.

Yet I need to bring them all together at the same place and time for a critical confrontation. Juggling schedules for events is challenging enough (How long did it take to break into that fortress? What was the travel time from the first village to the capitol, and how long did they stop over at the temple?) But also the fact that each type of transportation not only moves at different rates, it is affected differently by things like weather and terrain.

But I want it to make sense. I personally find it jarring when there is a disconnect in something like that in a book I am reading. There's no help for it, and no replacement for the tedious part of going back over it and meticulously running the numbers.

That's where the research comes in. We are fortunate today in that the information is available. We do, in fact, know how long it takes a sailing vessel to cover a set distance under certain conditions, etc. That's why I advocate using modern resources as well as historical ones. Historical references might be garbled by time. But up-to-date references can be cross-checked.

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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Thank you, Jim Aikin.

As has been pointed out, Rand's writing advice may be of use to other writers, regardless of her own capabilities as a writer or the content of her writing.

After all, one of the reasons a workshop like this can be of any use to writers is the idea that a writer may be able to help others' writing even if that writer has not succeeded in producing publishable work yet.

Writing advice, as with all other advice, is worth what you pay for it, and the only way you can know if it will help is to try it. If it doesn't work, don't use it.

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Jim Aikin
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quote:
Originally posted by Kathleen Dalton Woodbury:
After all, one of the reasons a workshop like this can be of any use to writers is the idea that a writer may be able to help others' writing even if that writer has not succeeded in producing publishable work yet.

That's an interesting idea.

I can certainly see that an unpublished writer can catch grammatical or spelling errors, or function as a cheering section. An unpublished writer could also provide useful links to online tutorials written by published authors. An unpublished author who is an expert in a specific area, such as medicine or law, could provide good advice within that area.

But with respect to the higher-level mechanics of fiction -- plot, characterization, theme, point of view, and so on -- I personally would feel reluctant to give too much weight to the suggestions of an unpublished author.

I mean, random bits of wisdom and insight are where you find them -- from the mouths of babes and all that. But if you'll forgive two cliches in a row, there's also such a thing as the halt leading the blind. If you're wondering whether something like a flashback or a point-of-view shift is working, an unpublished author is as likely to lead you astray as to tell you anything useful. Perhaps more likely.

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extrinsic
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The Hatrack writing workshop is a worldwide society, international, that includes among its members writers with a diverse variety of lifestyle, religious, political, ethnic, social, and cultural beliefs, and a wide variety of entertainment sentiments and sensibilities. The variety is one of this workshop's strengths. Writers here struggle for publication, as all writers struggle with writing. In that, we are all equal, no matter how many or how few, if any, publishing credits on our writing curriculum vitaes we may have. And each and every one of us has writing wisdoms we share.

That's what a dynamic and harmonious society, a culture, a folk group does, shares knowledge, for the sake of bonding and expressing shared identity. We have no cliques, no pecking order, beyond the one authority of moderator Ms. Dalton Woodbury; no one is more important or smarter or more correct or right or expert than any other. Our writing opinions may align at times, clash at others; or partially overlap, partially diverge at other times. But the one strength we have to share is there are no wrong answers. There is only what in any one individual's opinion works or doesn't work for that individual. All else is open for consideration, discussion, substantiation, and if approved, approval and perhaps acclaim, fleeting as acclaim may be. But not derision, discouragement, or disparagement,

The adage about "if there's nothing nice to say, say nothing" holds true here. Stronger yet, find something nice to say regardless, is an underlying principle of this or any dynamic writing workshop. This is a social society, not a competitively contending one. The marketplace and publishing culture are competitive enough on their own without we equals beating each other up over who's expert and who's amateur, who has a superior right to an opinion.

Yes, writers newly begun upon the creative writing journey toward publication may have fewer tips or guidances or wisdoms to offer, but sharing them opens those pointers to discussion so that they may be strengthened for the individual and all struggling writers. It is a conversation, a cooperative conversation, not one of who's on top and who's at the bottom, but one of mutual support for the good of all.

I don't know of any writer myself who has not published. Maybe a few have published through traditional publishing industry channels. That doesn't and shouldn't matter here. All writers share their writing publicly to some degree, with family and friends at least, or online blogging, chatrooms, social networking, etc. That's published. I don't know any writer whose guidance and writing are not at least worthy of consideration, discussion, and approval and encouragement.

New members come into the group every so often, expressing strongly-held opinions that have been heard and discussed at length, and they have at times been opinions found wanting, uncooperative, discouraging, derisive, contentious. The strongly held opinion that unpublished writers shouldn't be considered guides worthy of consideration has come up a couple times in the past year, and a few times every year that I've been a member. That opinion serves little purpose for other members who've debated it ad nauseam. What it does is show the stakeholder's viewpoint and alienates members. And also it incites passions from marginalizing struggling writers and their contributions to the conversation. It's browbeating. Everyone has a right and duty to participate in the conversation. No one has a right nor duty to disparage anyone in this society.

[ July 05, 2013, 04:04 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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wetwilly
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@ extrinsic: preach on, brother.
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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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As long as writers are trying to learn and trying to grow as writers, they are bound to discover things (techniques, approaches, ideas, insights, etc) that they can share with other writers, and that they can learn to apply to their own work by first seeing how it can apply to the work of others. This is basic to the learning experience that the Hatrack River Writers Workshop is devoted to.

Not only that, but one of the best ways to learn something is to teach it to others, and as writers learn new things, they can solidify that learning by sharing/teaching what they have learned.

But aside from all of that, everyone here is (or should be) a reader. OSC has encouraged writers to find and develop what he calls "wise readers" who will tell writers the most crucial things about their work: where they had trouble believing what is written (faith), where they had trouble caring about what is written (hope), and where they had trouble understanding what is written (clarity).

That kind of information, according to OSC, is invaluable and can be provided by anyone who reads, regardless of publishing experience.

Writers who are not married to their own way of doing things can also be helpful in that way, but non-writers are probably more helpful.

Finally, I have observed that the old saying about those who can, do; and those who can't, teach; contains a deep fallacy. Just because you can "do," does not guarantee that you know how you do what you "do." And you need to know how you do what you "do" before you can teach.

Doing and teaching require very different skill sets. So if you want to improve your work, don't expect someone who has succeeded to be able to help you. If they even know how they do what they "do," there is no guarantee that they would know who you need to do what you want to "do."

Look for and listen to those who have and are studying the "how," not for those who are doing the "do," if you really want to learn.

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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As far as being led "astray" by anyone, it is your privilege, responsibility, and duty as a writer of your own work to use judgment regarding the feedback offered to you.

First and foremost, you must decide what of that feedback actually helps you accomplish what you are trying to accomplish in your work.

You do not have to listen to any of the feedback you receive, with the exception that if three or more critiquers have the same problem with the same thing in your work, you need to think about why, and you need to consider doing something about it.

Otherwise, you are the judge of what feedback to listen to. Use what helps, ignore the rest, and say "thank you" to everyone who takes the time to provide feedback whether it's useful or not.

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History
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All good points of etiquette.
Of course, Mrs. Dr. Bob often tells me, "I'd agree with you if you were right."
[Wink]

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MAP
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Yeah, we've had this conversation many times before, and Extrinsic and Kathleen covered it really well.

I'll just add that sometimes you learn more in your study groups than you do in lecture. Sometimes students that are in the same place as you are can explain things better than a professor who is well-beyond your level. Not always because I've had some pretty amazing professors, but I've also had some very poor ones too. But I've found in all my years of schooling, that a really good study group always helps. That is what hatrack is to me, a really good study group. [Smile]

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rcmann
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None of my alpha or beta readers are authors of any kind. What they are is voracious readers. I mean, ravenous, readers. Just as you don't have to be a chef in order to be an epicurean, and you don't have to be a pilot to see that an airplane is upside down, and you need not be a musician to know that an instrument is out of tune, it's also true some you don't have to be an author in order to detect the difference between good story-telling and bad story-telling.

Honestly, based on what I have read by working editors, I conclude that quality of writing is not the deciding factor of who gets published for an unfortunate number of cases.

Marion Zimmer Bradley's memorial website has an article she wrote about this in some depth. She maintained that editors preferred to buy good stories. But if they were given a choice between a good story that did not meet the other criteria the editor needed, and a mediocre story that fit everything else, they would buy the mediocre story.

So I don't figure that simply being published means someone is necessarily the final authority on how to write well. Now, being published and selling millions of copies, that's a different matter...

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Jim Aikin
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quote:
Originally posted by extrinsic:
But the one strength we have to share is there are no wrong answers. There is only what in any one individual's opinion works or doesn't work for that individual.

I can see I've pushed a few people's hot buttons. Sorry about that. In my own defense, I will make one observation, and then I'll let it drop.

For the past ten or twelve years I've been playing cello in various community orchestras. I've been privileged to play with some wonderful musicians, many of whom were unpaid amateurs. I can assure you, however, that each and every one of those wonderful musicians had studied with a well-trained private teacher and practiced for years, in order to develop the necessary techniques.

I've also found myself onstage playing concerts with a few musicians who were, frankly, very bad. They had no business whatever performing for anyone who was paying money for a ticket, but there they were anyway, onstage, performing. In a community orchestra, you take the best musicians you can find. Sometimes you can't find good ones.

I can tell the difference between a great musician, an adequate musician, and a fluster-fingered wannabe. The idea that there are no differences amongst them is laughable. The same logic that would claim, "There are no wrong answers," would lead one to say of musicians, "There are no wrong notes."

(I know Miles Davis said exactly that, but he was talking about jazz, not about classical music -- and he was talking about jazz played by wonderfully talented artists who were operating at a very high level. Last weekend I was listening to a local jazz combo playing at a local coffee house, and I can assure you, I heard a few wrong notes. I also heard more than a few notes that were not technically wrong but that were, frankly, not worth listening to.)

The democratic impulse, to welcome everybody and respect their right to express their thoughts, is a wonderful thing. It's admirable. Through presenting our ideas and getting feedback on them, we learn. And as I _did_ point out, from time to time an unschooled reader will make a useful observation.

But in my opinion, it's a serious mistake to assert that anybody's opinions are as valuable as anybody else's. It's muddled thinking. Attempting to maintain that principle in a forum that provides technical support for aspiring writers runs the serious risk of misleading and confusing the very people that you're trying to help.

This is true whether the aspiring writer's goal is to write commercially viable fiction, or to write literature.

If you think that any manuscript is as great literature as any other, I hope you never have to sit through a really bad concert by a third-rate community orchestra. Or maybe you should seek out a few of them. It might be an educational experience.

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MAP
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I see your point Jim, but I don't think writing can directly be compared to music. A lot of traditionally published authors were self taught probably way more than musicians (although they do exist). I've read Stephenie Meyer's story on how she got published, and unless she's lying, she didn't study under any masters. She may have taken a few creative writing classes, but so have I. [Smile]

So you tell me who did Stephen King, J.K Rowling, or Suzanne Collins study under? Maybe they did, I don't know, but I've read the biographies of a lot of published writers who never studied under anyone.

I've also read a ton of writing advice by professionals (writers and editors) and so much of it is contradictory. It sounds a lot like the discussions on these boards. Even if you get advice from a professional, there is no guarentee it will work for you.

A lot of our members are serious writers who have read a lot of books on writing and books in general. Many have even attended writer's workshops, so while a lot of the advice here isn't from published writers (although sometimes it is), a lot of it is educated to some extent.

But in the end, the only one who can make sense of all the writing advice out there (and there is a ton from both professionals and amateurs) is you. You have to use your own brain.

Anyway, I would love it if one of my favorite authors would take my under his/her wing, or if I could afford to take a week off of my life to attend OSC's bootcamp, but some of us just have to make due with the next best thing.

[ July 05, 2013, 11:50 PM: Message edited by: MAP ]

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extrinsic
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quote:
Originally posted by Jim Aikin:
But in my opinion, it's a serious mistake to assert that anybody's opinions are as valuable as anybody else's.

Where "valuable" lies is in the eye of the beholder. Beyond that, the principle at issue isn't whether anyone or any comment is valuable, but that participating in the conversation without undue objections is a right.

More on "valuable": in a semiotics vein, does the sender signal clearly, strongly, appealingly the message so that the recipient finds value in it? I've attended music recitals as performer, producer, and audience. I have an ear for music. I also have an eye and an ear for value. Sometimes I get more than I bargained for; sometimes less, but it's all good since no one I know is flawless in any regard. I celebrate imperfection, like a diamond's value increases from its flaws, which lend to it uniqueness and orginality, since imperfection shows anyone has potential for growth. And then there's those fortuitous mistakes that appeal, the flaws that entertain, enlighten, enliven, delight--without necessarily embarrassing the flawholder--those who notice them.

Otherwise, life would be meaningless. We'd all live in bathtubs, directionlessly stagnant, contemplating our navels, dieting on conveniently nearby lotus blossoms, burned out like a forty-watt lightbulb above a Disneyland parking lot.

[ July 05, 2013, 06:13 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Meredith
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quote:
Originally posted by Jim Aikin:
quote:
Originally posted by extrinsic:
But the one strength we have to share is there are no wrong answers. There is only what in any one individual's opinion works or doesn't work for that individual.

For the past ten or twelve years I've been playing cello in various community orchestras. I've been privileged to play with some wonderful musicians, many of whom were unpaid amateurs. I can assure you, however, that each and every one of those wonderful musicians had studied with a well-trained private teacher and practiced for years, in order to develop the necessary techniques.

You're mixing your metaphors. [Smile]

We as writers are the composers, not the musicians.

Yes, for every one of those compositions there is a right way to perform it and . . . well, at least ways that are less good. But that's not the question. Was there only one way to compose it? That's the question. And I'd answer no.

One composer might make up the melody in his head. Another might plink it out on a piano. Someone else might use software. And they're all right, as long as it's working for them.

Writers are like composers. Readers are both the performers, hopefully recreating our scenes in their imaginations, and the audience, vicariously experiencing the emotions we try to evoke for them. (And yes, in some cases at least, a more experienced reader may get more out of a story than one who's less well-equipped. Just go back and reread something you read more than ten years ago if you don't believe that.)

Just like composers, writers have all different kinds of answers to the question "how do you write?" I'm a modified discovery writer. A lot of people like to create detailed outlines. That would make me nuts. At the same time, I've learned (and at least partly from my participation here) that I do a lot better and things flow more easily if I have at least a rudimentary road map.

We share the things that work for us as options that other writers might want to try, acknowledging that they won't work for everyone. We also share other things we've learned about writing. It's everyone's option to take what they think is of value and leave the rest.

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RyanB
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I think Jim was right on. We're all artists.

In many ways we're closer to the musicians than the composers. I know just a little about music, but I'm pretty sure if I composed a piece it wouldn't have any "obviously wrong" notes in it just because they're easy to pick out. I've been doing this writing thing all my life (and seriously for the last few years in a way I've never studied music.) And I write "obviously wrong" words all of the time and they make it through several revisions.

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