The World’s Favorite Sociopath: A Goal for 2019

In 1877 a young would-be physician walked into the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary and met an attending physician who seemed already to know everything there was to know about him just by making a few astute observations. Dr. Joseph Bell had a habit of showing off his highly refined detective skills in order to impress upon his students the importance of taking a careful survey of a patient before launching into treatment.

sociopathThis so impressed medical student and writer Arthur Conan Doyle that when he published A Study in Scarlet, his first detective novel, nearly a decade later, Dr. Joseph Bell’s mad skills of observation showed up in the habits of a brilliant consultant named Sherlock Holmes.

When asked about his inspiration for his beloved consulting detective, Conan Doyle always answered that the character was drawn from Joseph Bell, himself a famous surgeon and forensic scientist known for drawing large conclusions from minute evidence. The two had worked closely together for a few years, as Conan Doyle clerked for Bell, a kind of Dr. Watson to his Sherlock. It probably makes sense that Bell might show up in his student’s work.

I recently became re-introduced to Sherlock Holmes when my oldest son discovered him. My son cut his teeth on the BBC show Sherlock in which the modern-day Holmes is brilliantly portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch, but then he made this mama proud by plowing his way through Arthur Conan Doyle’s original works as well.

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The game is afoot!

So, when he recently turned fourteen, we celebrated with a Sherlock Holmes party, complete with a mystery to solve, a deerstalker to wear, and a little brother dressed up as John Watson. He made a good Sherlock, though I’m happy to report he’s a little more socially aware than the character.

Despite Conan Doyle’s repeated claim, there were likely other influences that contributed to the development of Sherlock Holmes as well. Edgar Allan Poe essentially created the detective fiction genre and Conan Doyle had been known to praise his efforts. The contemporary works of Émile Gaboriau also seem to echo at times through the character of Sherlock Holmes. And then there was Joseph Bell’s own claim in a letter to his former student in which he wrote, “You are yourself Sherlock Holmes and well you know it.”

I don’t blame him one bit for rejecting the honor. Holmes is something of a single-minded sociopath with little use for other people and a significant cocaine addiction. He’s a fascinating character and if I’m ever falsely accused of murder, I’ll want someone just like him on the case. But I wouldn’t want to hang out with him.

Because many of the people I do hang out with regularly are writers, I’m not surprised to read that Conan Doyle’s most famous character was inspired by someone he knew. That kind of goes with the territory when you are friends with a writer.

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Never mess with a writer.

I even once had a professor who boldly confessed that the “friend” character in every novel he’d ever written was almost exactly based on a boy he’d known growing up. I’ve never done anything so blatant. None of my characters has ever been intentionally patterned off someone in my life, but I’m sure if I really thought about it, I could recognize bits of those I know and love within my work.

I suspect that’s true of most fiction writers. Like Conan Doyle’s famous detective, we draw inspiration from a variety of places—ourselves, great books, and yes, occasionally from people we know. I guess that might bother some folks. Maybe it bothers you. It just kind of makes me want to be the type of person who could inspire a great character.

And that sounds like a good goal for 2019.

Happy New Year!

Blurb’s the Word

In July of 1855, American essayist, poet, and all-around deep thinker Ralph Waldo Emerson picked up a book that some young upstart found the courage to send him unsolicited. The book, a somewhat pretentious collection of poetry self-published by an unidentified author, was called Leaves of Grass. Miraculously, the presumably quite busy Emerson opened the book.

He loved it. He searched the publication information and discovered the name of the copyright holder. Then he sat down to write to Walt Whitman. The letter is encouraging and poetic and Whitman had to be pretty psyched to receive it because up until then the reviews of his book hadn’t been especially kind.

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Emerson’s response to Leaves of Grass. I’m a little surprised Whitman could even read it. By Ralph Waldo Emerson, from the Library of Congress, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Next Whitman did what any author would probably do. He sent the letter to a contact at the New York Tribune. When he later printed a second edition of Leaves of Grass, he included the letter as an appendix. Just to make sure no one could miss it, Whitman also placed the tiny excerpt, “‘I greet you at the beginning of a great career’—R. W. Emerson” right on the spine.

This was probably the first example of the now ubiquitous book blurb. Just about every book you pick up off the shelf at your friendly neighborhood bookstore has at least one on the cover. There’s often even a page or two of them in the front of the books of established or well-connected authors.

They also grace the top of every description on Amazon, where you’ll find them listed along with the label: “#1 Amazon Bestseller in Lesbian Clown Self-help Literature.”

And that’s how you know the author is much better at playing the Amazon marketing game than I am. I’m hopeless. Also probably not writing in the correct category to achieve such a claim to fame.

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Now that’s a book blurb. Damn it.

But I do have a blurb on my cover and atop my book description. A few years ago I attended a writers conference in Arkansas and was lucky enough to get to talk with keynote speak and New York Times bestselling history writer Jeff Guinn. If you haven’t read his books, you should check them out. They’re well-researched, accessible, and fascinating—everything a great history book should be.

It was with trepidation that this upstart approached Mr. Guinn to ask for his opinion on her book. Fortunately, like Emerson, he was incredibly gracious and despite a busy schedule (filming for an upcoming documentary on Jonestown for Sundance TV), he agreed to take a look. About a week after I sent him the manuscript, the Jeff Guinn sent me this:

“Quality fiction and real history make a great match, and Sarah Angleton’s Gentleman of Misfortune offers the best of both. This is an engaging story with surprises on every page.”

—Jeff Guinn, New York Times bestselling author of The Last Gunfight and Manson

And that’s when I fainted.

freakgifOkay, I didn’t really faint, but my response was definitely a little undignified. Next I did what any author probably would. I sent the blurb off to my cover artist. And if I’d had any connections to major news outlets, I’d have probably sent it to them, too.

I know not everyone loves blurbs. Some in the publishing industry complain they’ve become so common they’re basically meaningless. Some readers ignore them. I don’t think a blurb alone would ever make me decide to read a book, but personally I like them. Knowing that someone whose work I have enjoyed or respected thought enough of a book to allow their name to be associated with it is something I find compelling.

I’m so grateful to Mr. Guinn and to the handful of other authors who offered lovely words about Gentleman of Misfortune. Each of them also has produced great works that I hope readers of my book will look up if they’re unfamiliar with them. I’m grateful to be even a small part of a generous industry full of Emersons willing to help out their emerging fellows.

So, what about you? Do book blurbs make any difference to you?

Running is Still Stupid: A Tale of Perseverance as Told by an Ugly Guy

In 1915, Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, the 18th Baron of Dunsany and a prolific writer known to his readers simply as Lord Dunsany, produced an updated version of another prolific storyteller’s work. He titled the tale “The True History of the Tortoise and the Hare.” Part of Aesop’s Fables, the original story tells of a plucky tortoise, who though slow and steady, defeats an arrogant hare in a foot race.

It provides a wonderful lesson in perseverance, or at least that’s how I always heard it. But Lord Dunsany’s version turns out a little differently. In it the hare thinks the whole idea of the race is remarkably stupid and he refuses to run. Later, after the tortoise has claimed his victory, the two are on a high hill and seeing a distant forest fire, decide the fastest of them should warn the forest creatures. All of the witnesses to the race event then perish, which is why few had heard the real end of the story before.

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Lord Dunsany, looking very smug after killing off all the forest animals. By Bain News Service, publisher – Library of Congress Catalog, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

This may not have been Aesop’s original intention, but then, this may not have been Aesop’s story. Over the years, the collection of Aesop’s fables (or the Aesopica, which is a pretty great word) has grown to include more than seven hundred tales, many of which can be traced to origins that do not in any way coincide with Aesop’s life. So really, to credit a fable to Aesop is more about assigning a genre.

Also it’s not entirely clear there was an Aesop at all. Aristotle, along with other contemporary sources, describes a slave who loved to tell stories, born around 620 BC. About where exactly he was born or whose slave he might have been, sources disagree. It’s not until the 1st century AD that there was an effort to write a sort of biography, known as The Aesop Romance. From this account, attributed to no single author and freely expanded by many for hundreds of years, we learn that Aesop was an exceptionally ugly man who received his gift of storytelling from the goddess Isis.

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Speedy. photo credit: Riccardo Palazzani – Italy Testuggine delle Seychelles via photopin (license)

And that, I think, is as likely as a tortoise outrunning a hare.

So it’s probably safe to say that Lord Dunsany, or any other writer, can pretty much do whatever he wants with the story. Though I like the message that perseverance pays off in the end, I’m fond of the 1915 version as well, in which the moral is obviously that tortoise brains are as thick as their shells and there’s nothing slow and steady about a forest fire. Also, from the hare we learn that running is stupid.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, or if you’ve read Launching Sheep, then you may recognize this as my personal running mantra. Also, you may recall that I only need a running mantra because I am a sucker for a goofy event. I really do despise running.

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I only run for the tutus.

But when I recently saw there would be a Bunny Run 5k close by, including a costume contest, I decided to participate. I even did a little bit of training to prepare so I didn’t injure or embarrass myself. Then I worked on my costume. At the suggestion of my very clever husband, I decided to be the tortoise among the bunnies.

Race day dawned dreary and dull. And stormy. And cold. But because I had worked so hard on my costume (and trained a little for the run itself), I pulled myself out of bed on that awful Saturday morning and ran.

This slow and steady tortoise definitely did not win her race, but I did win the prize for best costume and I finished in a time that made me happy, ahead of a good number of bunnies. Also, no one died in a forest fire. Because it was raining.

Running is stupid.

What the Cool Kids are up to this Christmas Season

There’s a strange thing happening in my house this holiday season. The delightfully tacky, lighted, multi-colored star that has topped my Christmas tree for more than a decade has been blinking. It never used to do that.

But this year, about a week into Christmas tree season (which for us begins the day after Thanksgiving), the thing began to develop a personality. Every night we plug it in to discover what color it’s going to be. Sometimes two colors switch on, sometimes only one. Other times all the colors come on or the star blinks for a while in a seemingly random pattern.

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Today it’s orange, which is not a very Christmas-y color. I think it wants to tell us a story that would be more fitting for Halloween.

Of course I realize the star must have a short and we need to replace it before our house burns down, but I jokingly said the other day that I thought it must be possessed. And that’s when my nearly thirteen-year-old son said, “Maybe someone from another dimension is trying to tell us something.”

He was making a reference to the Netflix series, Stranger Things, that you either recently binge watched, or you’ve heard your friends talking about how they did. My husband and I fell under the spell of the series shortly after the second season dropped at the end of October this year, when all the cool kids wouldn’t stop talking about it.

In case you’re not familiar with the show, the basic premise is that something has gone wrong at a secretive government lab near a small town in 1980s Indiana, opening up a gate into another dimension. A boy goes mysteriously missing in the first episode. Trapped in the alternate dimension, the boy manages to communicate with his mother through surges in electricity and she eventually figures out that she can paint her walls with the alphabet and string Christmas lights so he can signal words to her. Oh, and the other dimension contains an insatiable, terrifying, virtually indestructible beast that likes to dimension hop and hunt.

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This could be yours. https://www.ebay.com/i/382304200890?chn=ps

I probably don’t have to tell you that it’s scary. Or that it’s not especially Christmas-y. But that hasn’t stopped Christmastime marketing geniuses from taking advantage of its popularity. Among the racks of ugly sweaters this season, you can find one that includes lights strung above crooked letters of the alphabet, with three that really light up to signal: R-U-N.

Yikes! Merry Christmas.

I suppose the concept of scary stories (and marketing genius) at Christmas aren’t particular to 2017. If you turn on the television at any given time in the month of December, I’m pretty sure you can find at least one version of A Christmas Carol to watch, filled with ghosts, and if you’re lucky, Muppets.

Charles Dickens wrote the original novella in 1843. It took him about six weeks to do it, and his publisher managed to release it December 19th. By Christmas Eve, the first run had sold out.

Dickens was already known as a writer of novels generally published in serial fashion, and with A Christmas Carol, he struck just the right cord with his audience. He rode Victorian surges in both the popularity of frightening stories and in newly imagined secular celebrations of Christmas. He captured people with his project, one that would provide him with a great deal of income through the rest of his life, and in some ways would shape the way Christmas is celebrated even in 2017.

I did (briefly) attempt to determine just how many adaptations of this Christmas ghost story have been made into movies, television specials, operas, radio plays, sitcom episodes, etc. As you can probably imagine, that’s a hard number to tally and I’m not that dedicated, so let’s just agree it’s somewhere around a whole bunch.

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Charles Dickens, penning strange holiday traditions. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

When Dickens wrote his book, it wasn’t exactly a new thing, this telling of ghost stories and scary yarns in wintertime when the nights are long and the cold wind howls through barren trees. Such tales are referenced by playwright Christopher Marlowe in the late 16th century. But it may have been Dickens who so expertly associated the frightening winter tale with the cheery celebration of Christmas.

So I am going to choose to believe that it’s not unusual at all that my son is spending time this Christmas season binge-watching Stranger Things, because all the cool kids have been talking about it, and fortunately he’s much less susceptible to nightmares than I am. But I do think I’m going to take a little time out of my busy Christmas schedule to shop for a new, less blinky and more consistent, star for the top of our tree.

Lots of Running, Impressive Hair, and a Not-Boring Book for Christmas

In 1820, James Fenimore Cooper read aloud to his wife Susan from a boring English novel. At least legend suggests that he thought it was boring and he expressed as much to his wife. She allegedly responded that if he thought he was so clever, he should just write a better book himself.

Cooper accepted the challenge. The result was his first novel, Precaution, a book written in a style similar to the works of Jane Austen, which though widely beloved, probably are found boring by most husbands reading aloud to their wives.

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James Fenimore Cooper, who wrote a book because he was bored before writing some more books because he was kind of good at it. By John Wesley Jarvis, Public Domain

But the book sold okay in England. It was accredited to an anonymous Englishwoman, rather than to the New York man who would go on from that mild success to create the first big fictional American action hero, one that would one day become Daniel Day-Lewis running across the big screen in a distinctly American and probably slightly less boring fashion. To an epic soundtrack I might add.

The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757—published in 1826—became one of the most widely read novels of its day and firmly established James Fenimore Cooper as one of the greats. It’s the second book in the Leatherstockings five-book series that features Natty Bumppo, an American frontiersman raised by Delaware Indians to become a fearless warrior who runs a lot and has super impressive hair.

The series is also often referred to as the first real example of the western genre of literature, the same genre that before too long introduced the world to the heroic card-playing, gun-fighting, whiskey-drinking cowboy who finds himself in the middle of the conflict between Native Americans and settlers, outlaws and hard-working ranchers, or war and a life of farming in peace. Often while wearing an impressively large hat.

It’s a genre that has waxed and waned in popularity through the years and I admit it’s not one I usually gravitate toward. But I did recently read a western novel I liked quite a lot. The book is Guerilla Bride by author J.J. Zerr, who is not an anonymous Englishwoman. And this is a not-boring book.

Guerilla Bride
A not-boring book I enjoyed.

It follows the story of Emerson Sharp, an unlucky young man trying to find his moral compass and a good horse in the border states at the height of the American Civil War. In the process he becomes a talented gambler, fumbles into the war, accidentally becomes an accessory to murder, and falls in love a time or two. And yes he runs a lot, though usually on a horse and with much less impressive hair than Daniel Day-Lewis’s Natty Bumppo.

I don’t know if you like western fiction, or know someone who does, but I enjoyed this one. And you know, Christmas is coming up and books make great gifts. I often hesitate to recommend reads because I’m afraid that if the person I gave a title to ends up not loving the book, I will be judged harshly. Still, I am definitely willing to venture that this is probably not the most boring book you or the western fiction reader on your Christmas list has ever read. And if it is, well then you should write a better one.

By the way, if you happen to have a special someone on your shopping list who enjoys humorous books about history, family life, sheep and experimental rocketry, I may have another not-boring suggestion for you.

So You See It Could Be A Lot Worse

In November of 1922, a young foreign correspondent writing for the Toronto Star, kissed his wife goodbye at their home in Paris and boarded a train for Switzerland to cover the Lausanne Peace Conference. Like many young writers just starting out, Ernest Hemingway had not yet found his way into publishing the kinds of works he really wanted to produce, but he managed to get some networking done while working his day job and soon editor Lincoln Steffens expressed an interest in his fiction.

At that point, Hemingway did what any writer looking for his big break would surely do. He contacted his wife Hadley in Paris and asked her to bring his writing to Switzerland. Hadley readily agreed and packed up her husband’s work, carbon copies and all, into a small suitcase. Then she boarded a train just as soon as she could.

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There could be some very valuable papers stuffed in a suitcase in someone’s attic somewhere. photo credit: FUMIGRAPHIK_Photographist Travel via photopin (license)

Before the train pulled out of the station, Mrs. Hemingway stowed her bags and left them just long enough to locate and buy a bottle of water. When she returned, the suitcase containing all the written works of her future Pulitzer Prize winning ex-husband was gone.  The works lost included several short stories as well as a novel about World War I.

I don’t know about you, but to me this is a soul-crushing kind of a story. I’ve borne witness to the agony authors feel when their laptops self-destruct and swallow partial manuscripts. I myself have misplaced thumb drives or failed to back up scenes and lived to regret it. Thousands of words have tripped from my fingertips and fallen, for one reason or another, off the face of the earth, never to be recovered.  No matter how careful we are it happens.

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Ernest Hemingway writing bigger and better things. (Public Domain)

And it’s not always the worst thing ever. Often it leads to better scenes, more careful word choices, more thoughtful expressions, and all around improved creative works.  Sometimes, it even pushes us to find new ways to share our work with the world.

Recently I lost a novel. I didn’t leave it unattended in a suitcase at the train station, though some days it feels like that’s what happened. Instead I entrusted it to a publisher that fell on hard times and proved unable to care for the work as promised.

The somewhat complicated situation has caused me many sleepless nights and no shortage of agony, but I also count myself lucky. As the author of a project that had not yet reached publication (something that after a previous one-year delay was finally supposed to happen this past month), my position is not as difficult as many of the authors this publisher used to work with before ceasing all communications and leaving everyone scrambling for a way to reclaim their rights.

I know that some of you lovely readers will want to venture legal advice and while I appreciate the desire to help, I assure you I’ve explored a lot of options and carefully considered my best course of action. I’ve had a long time to watch this play out. I just wanted to include you in the loop, and also assure you that the book is going to make it into the world eventually, just not in the way I had originally hoped.

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What’s the best way to cope with losing a book? Write another one, of course!

So you see it could be a lot worse.

Hemingway never attempted to re-write the novel he lost. Instead he went on to write bigger and presumably better things, but it seems he may have never totally recovered from the loss either. In some of his drunker moments, he was known to occasionally admit that the loss of all of his work at once was a big factor in his decision to divorce his first wife.

All I need to do is divorce a publisher.

 

By the way, if you would like to receive updates as I pursue publication for this and additional books, you can sign up to do just that right here: http://eepurl.com/b3olY1

In the Path of an Eclipse: Really Dark, Kind of Weird, and Definitely Goofy-Looking

In my corner of the world, we have a very exciting event coming up. If you’re in the US, and particularly if you are anywhere along the line from about Salem, Oregon to Charleston, South Carolina, you’ve probably heard about the total eclipse we’ll be witnessing on Monday, August 21.

It’s a pretty big deal, worthy of donning goofy-looking glasses and taking a few minutes out of your day to say, “Huh. It’s really dark out, which is definitely kind of weird.”

The reason we’re all so excited is that a total solar eclipse hasn’t been visible in the Continental US in 38 years. It’s also pretty cool that the path of totality will hit nine different states with more than 10 million people living within the moon’s full shadow. Another 28 million people live within 60 miles of that path, and everyone in the US should be able to see at least a partial eclipse.

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I was going to model the glasses myself, but they were pretty goofy-looking. Instead I enlisted the help of my buddy Sock Monkey Steve, who never seems to mind looking goofy for a good cause.

Though not all of St. Louis is directly in the path, a good chunk of it is, including about 1.3 million residents, and the hundreds of thousands of people that will be clogging the roads to get to the perfect viewing spot, causing all the rest of us to be late for work.

And why not? It’s not like this happens all the time. In fact, St. Louis has not seen a total solar eclipse since 1442, when St. Louis didn’t exist yet, so technically, I suppose it’s never happened in the city before. It’s an event that’s worth experiencing, and one that’s certainly worth remembering.

Because you never know when it might come in handy to call on a memory like that. Like, for example, if you happen to have the unfortunate experience of getting conked on the head only to wake up in the court of King Arthur in June of 528, it would be useful to know that on the day the king has decided to execute you, you will be in the path of totality of a historical eclipse.

This is what happened to Mark Twain’s 19th century Connecticut Yankee Hank Morgan. A man suddenly out of time and facing public execution, Hank drew on his knowledge of the disappearing sun to convince the court he was a great magician, even greater than Merlin, and that were he not given back his life, he’d never allow the sun to return. It’s an amusing scene in which Hank has to use some misdirection and not all that clever stall tactics to get the timing to turn out right, since he doesn’t know precisely how long the eclipse will last. But it eventually all works out, and Hank gets to live on to destroy history another day.

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If you ever find yourself in this situation, don’t panic. Just remember your eclipse dates. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court trailer, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I know Hank’s story is not exactly historical, but it was written in the 1880s so maybe you can cut me a little slack on this one. The scene also may have been inspired by an actual historical event from February of 1504, when Christopher Columbus used some old-timey Google magic to convince the natives of Jamaica to continue supplying his shipwrecked crew long after the actions of said crew had pretty much convinced the natives they didn’t much want to.

Because Columbus knew something the natives didn’t know, that the full moon was planning to hide behind the earth for a little bit on the night of February 29. All he had to do was to claim this temporary disappearance as a sign from his angry God. Suddenly he had a native population that was more interested in helping the crew survive until help arrived.

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Columbus’s old-timey Google magic came from a widely used almanac by astronomer Johannes Müller von Königsberg (or Regiomantanus). By Camille Flammarion – Astronomie Populaire 1879, p231 fig. 86, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

And if it worked for Columbus, it might work for you someday, because even though to the best of my knowledge no one in the real world has yet been conked on the head and been transported to sixth century England, plenty of elements of science fiction have come more or less true. Really, I think it’s safest to be prepared.

But just in case you ever do find yourself in that situation, you should know that Mark Twain, who did not have the advantage of Google (or evidently an almanac), got the date wrong. There was no total solar eclipse on June 21 of 528. Hank’s plan wouldn’t have worked and he would have gotten himself burned at the stake.

But there really is going to be an eclipse on Monday. If you’re in the path of this much anticipated solar event, get yourself some goofy-looking glasses (from a reliably safe source) and enjoy because it’s going to get really dark out, and it will definitely be kind of weird. Then maybe brush up on your eclipse history, because you never know when you might get conked on the head.