A Cough Drop for Edgar Allan Poe

In January of 1845, Columbian Magazine listed among its upcoming publications, a new story by Edgar Allan Poe called “Some Words with a Mummy.” The story finally appeared, however, in April of that year in American Review. People who care to know such things assume Poe pulled the story from the original magazine because he received a better offer. And, well, what writer wouldn’t do that?

Despite having a mummy at its center and being written by an author most widely known for his dark tales, the story is actually an example of Poe’s lighter work. If you haven’t spent much time with him since reading “The Tell-tale Heart” and “The Cask of Amontillado” in high school, then you may be surprised to know that he was also pretty good at being funny.

mummy
Can you even imagine? By jalvear – originally posted to Flickr as Mummy at Louvre, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7141759

“Some Words with a Mummy” is straight up satire, poking fun at the 19th century Egyptomania that had people decorating their sitting rooms with mummies and hosting unrolling parties with their closest non-scientist friends, just for kicks. And he doesn’t let the scientific community off easy, either.

In case you haven’t read it (which you can do here if you want), the premise is that a tired narrator blows off his early bedtime for a chance to attend a mummy unrolling at his buddy’s house. The gathered friends decide after poking and prodding for a little bit that they might as well feed some electricity into various slits they make into the desiccated body.

The mummy, named Allamistakeo, wakes up and informs them they’re all pretty rude. Then the story really gets going. After sewing up their new friend and giving him some ridiculous clothes to wear, the 19th-century gentlemen feel compelled to prove to their ancient counterpart that mankind sure has come a long way in 5,000 years.

Edgar Allan Poe
EAP may not have been terribly photogenic, but he could be kind of funny when he had a mind to.

Allamistakeo remains unconvinced. He offers a reasonable counter for every ill-informed suggestion his hosts make, demonstrating their narrow grasp on not only science, but also history. The only thing that impresses the reawakened Egyptian at all is the throat lozenge.

That’s right folks, the best advancement humankind made in nearly five thousand years was the cough drop.

Of course, Poe’s fairly dopey narrator didn’t yet know anything about space travel or smart phones, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and say Allamistakeo, who had been as successfully placed into perpetual stasis as any sci fi character ever was, wouldn’t have been too impressed with those either.

This is actually one of my favorite stories of Poe’s. It’s absurd and clever and it makes me giggle, which is why I was particularly excited to discover I could pay homage to it in my own work about mummies.

My first (to be published) historical thriller Gentleman of Misfortune follows the story of an elegant swindler who steals a shipment of eleven mummies. My thief is invented, but the mummies are ripped from the pages of history and there was a point when they were located in the same city at the same time as Edgar Allan Poe. Talk about a fun cameo to write!

cough drops
So many choices! What a time we live in.

My fictional gentleman got the opportunity to have a fictional conversation with the ripped-from-history Poe himself. As you might imagine, they talked about mummies. And lozenges.

It’s one of the lighter, more playful moments in a story that has a definite dark edge. I’d like to think that if Poe found himself suddenly resurrected, he’d enjoy it. But I doubt that. He was generally a pretty harsh literary critic. And like his Allamistakeo, Poe didn’t seem much pleased with his own age. I think it’s unlikely he’d be all that impressed by ours.

Still, I bet he would enjoy our wide variety of cough drops.

Wait—did you just make up a word?

Every week, or at least as closely as I can make it, I head out to a local restaurant where the waitress knows my order as soon as I walk in. I slide into the back room and take my place at a long table where, along with several other writers, I engage in the painful but necessary process of critique.

For nearly six years I’ve been subjecting my work, five or so pages at a time, to the scrutinizing eyes of more or less the same collection of critical readers.

We know each other well enough by now that the sting of harsh criticism isn’t too painful and any heaped-on praise is usually genuine. We each know the unique voices and styles of the others, share a great deal of respect for one another’s work, and have all become more skilled throughout our time together.

We’ve got a good thing going.

writer
A writer looking for just the right word.

My fellow critique partners focus on both the big stuff and the small details, asking me the tough questions about story structure and character development, as well as calling me out for awkward phrasing, run-on sentences that include fifty-eight overly sentimental words, use of ridiculous adverbs indiscriminately, exceptionally long lists, or for starting sentences with “but or “and.”

But they know that when it’s their turn to share, I will ask the tough questions too, like, “Wait—did you just make up a word?”

This very situation came up a couple of weeks ago. The writer (who shall remain nameless) smiled and explained that he did not just make it up, because it actually appears in previous works of his as well. I let it slide because the word (zorch) somehow fit the context remarkably well. And sometimes the word we need just doesn’t exist in the dictionary.

Other times, words that wind up in the dictionary are ones we don’t need. That’s what happened in second edition of Merriam-Webster’s New International Dictionary in 1934. The story goes that in July of 1931, chemistry editor Austin M. Patterson made a note that the word density should be included on the list of words that could be represented by the abbreviations D or d.

Somehow the note got misplaced and ended up directed incorrectly to the printer. Before long, a curious word nerd could find, tucked into the Ds between Dorcopsis and doré, the word Dord, complete with a pronunciation guide and a definition suggesting that it was a synonym for density.

dictionary
So many words. photo credit: Merriam-Webster Inc. MW_Bookshelf_Unabridged_Vintage via photopin (license)

No one caught the problem until a word nerd extraordinaire and editor for Merriam-Webster noticed, almost eight years later, that Dord didn’t have an etymology. The resulting investigation resulted in the removal of the ghost word by 1940, but for almost ten years Dord was a perfectly good word.

And why shouldn’t it have been? English is, after all, a dynamic language. In recent years, English language dictionaries have added, on average, more than one thousand new words each year. So far, Dord hasn’t been one of them. Neither has zorch.

I am, however, pleased that the online Urban Dictionary includes three definitions for Merriam-Webster’s most famous not-a-word. The first states that it is a mistaken synonym for density. The third defines it as “a word that is incorrectly used or does not technically exist . . .” My favorite part about this definition is the clever accompanying sentence: “Urban Dictionary is not a place to learn, it’s just a load of dords.”

I’m sure my critique partners would be quick to point out that the previous sentence is a comma splice, but what matters more is the second definition, which uses dord as an adjective for describing something as literally dense. I suggest this should be taken one step further and used figuratively. For example, I might say to a fellow writer: “You must be pretty dord to try to use the word zorch.”

I think I’ll roll this out and see if it sticks. Maybe it’ll become one of Merriam-Webster’s thousand or so new words in its next edition.

What words do you wish existed?

So Cold: The Secret to My Success

Occasionally someone will ask—either at a reading event or in casual conversation—whether I find it difficult to work at home. They wonder if I get distracted by the dishes or the errands or the dirty socks my children have inevitably left stuffed behind the couch cushions.

Of course, I have to admit that sometimes I do. Sitting behind a computer screen with no one to talk to except the dog (a good listener) and the chorus of characters (not great listeners) competing for attention in my head can get a little tiresome. Then the household stuff calls to me. It’s a convenient distraction—one I can always justify because those things need to get taken care of, too.

I generally reply that I get by because I’m list-maker and dedicated time manager, and I am, but I also have a special, motivational weapon in my arsenal, especially this time of year.

I’m cold.

Like seriously cold. All. The. Time.

thermostat
One study suggests that a third of all couples argue over the temperature setting in their homes, and 40% of women admit to secretly turning up the heat when their significant other isn’t looking. photo credit: EE Image Database Woman giving the thumbs-up sign and pointing to a thermostat on the wall in her home via photopin (license)

People have been finding clever ways to keep our environments warm pretty much since the invention of people, when cave men and cave women argued about how much to build up the campfire.

In ancient Rome, some buildings evidently used systems of pipes to force hot air from pockets of empty space beneath a fire into walls as a clever method of using radiant heat to warm up a room.

After a few dark and chilly centuries when heating returned to a more primitive style, other solutions began to emerge. In 13th century Europe, the Cistercian Order of monks began using diverted and heated river water to warm their monasteries. Better stoves and chimneys were developed through the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries. Then Benjamin Franklin invented his (appropriately named) Franklin Stove in 1741, which proved to be a somewhat effective way to force warmth and smoke into a room in greater amounts than your average fireplace.

ozziesun
My dog’s favorite solar powered heating system.

Over the next hundred years or so, Scotsman James Watt came up with a steam-driven heating system, Russian Franz San Galli invented the radiator, and American professor Warren Johnson patented the first thermostat, because he was tired of classrooms that were either too hot or too cold. I think we’ve all been there.

Just a few short years later in 1919, Alice H. Parker patented the first central heating system that used natural gas. An African American woman enduring harsh New Jersey winters, Parker said she developed the idea that formed an important basis for the convenient and safer heating systems of today because she was cold and her fireplace just wasn’t cutting it. I hear that.

office attire
Dressed for a day at the office.

According to a 2015 Dutch study, most women probably do. On average, the researchers found, ladies tend to be comfortable with a warmer ambient temperature than their gentleman counterparts do. The findings (which surprised absolutely no one who has ever attempted to share a home with a member of the opposite sex), sparked a discussion of whether office thermostats are sexist. Or something like that.

The idea was that back in the day when offices contained mostly men in three-piece suits, temperature levels were set for the comfort of those men. Today, as offices tend to contain more equal numbers of men and women, the temperatures remain set for ideal manly comfort standards. There’s a fancy formula engineers use to determine the optimal level of temperature comfort as determined by humidity, air temperature, and mean metabolic rates, etc. The problem, according to the study, is that the formula overestimates the amount of heat produced by a resting woman.

The differences have been attributed to estrogen production and muscle mass to fat ratios, which tend to be different between men and women. I don’t know that I would go so far to call the thermostat a source of inherent workplace sexism, but the struggle is real, and lots of women throughout the workforce carry an extra sweater to the office.

space heater
The secret to my success: a closed door and a space heater.

As someone who works primarily at home, I use the problem to my advantage, because I am the lone female living with three males. Through the winter, my house is always at least 2 (or 3 or 4) degrees colder than I’d like it to be. Yes, when my sons head off to school and my husband to work, I could turn up the thermostat and no one would complain.

Instead, I walk down the stairs and through a long hallway to my hidey hole office in the basement where I close the door and turn on my own personal space heater, before sitting down to work. Pretty soon, the dishes and the errands and the dirty socks begin to call to me, when the words don’t want to flow and the character voices have gone silent. When that happens, all I have to do is step outside of my office into my cold, cold house. I don’t stay there for long.

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.

Esherlock
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.

teeshirt
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!

A NaNoWriMo Eggs-periment

Sometime in the mid-1500s as the Spanish Inquisition held a firm grip on Naples, Renaissance man and notable genius of cryptography Giovanni Battista della Porta discovered a useful little trick. Several of his clever friends had been imprisoned for presumably not being quite Catholic enough and della Porta needed to get messages to them.

egg head
16th century egg head Giovanni Battista della Porta. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Everything that entered through the prison walls was carefully checked, with the exception of food deliveries. So, della Porta allegedly used a combination of vinegar and alum to write messages onto eggs. The special ink disappeared when the eggs were boiled, but the letters transferred through the semi-permeable shell and imprinted themselves on the membrane of the egg.

All della Porta’s nerdy heretic friends had to do was to carefully peel the egg, read the message, and eat the evidence. Not bad, and definitely more subtle than writing “Hoppy Easter” in white crayon before dyeing, which is how I usually convey secret egg messages.

Now I’ve found plenty of references to this little eggs-periment (see what I did there?), but what I haven’t been able to discover is what the messages might have been, or how della Porta’s friends knew to look for them, though I suppose if you peel and egg and discover words on the white, you probably go ahead and read them.

egg
I am probably not the person you want sneaking you hidden messages in prison.

Were these escape plans? Tricks for correctly answering inquisitors’ questions to secure release? Clever microfiction featuring a dashing 16th century polymath who breaks his friends out of prison? Egg salad recipes? Alas, the world will likely never know, because egg messages rarely last very long.

But there are lots of words that go unread in the world, and not just the brilliant ones languishing between the covers of small potatoes authors you’ve never heard of. Just this past month thousands of writers joined in on National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and produced millions upon millions of words, many of which are brilliant, and a lot of them will never be read.

Because this was a sprint, and for many it was probably a slog. Some writers made it to the finish line of their goal (or will in the next thirty-eight hours) and many did not. I’m happy to be among those who completed the challenge, but what I can tell you is that you will never see most of the words I wrote.

laptop
Confession: One of my biggest fears is that I’ll die with an unrevised novel on my hard drive and it will get published. Fortunately, I’m pretty sure my family knows better. Also I’m not famous enough for anyone to care what I have left unpublished. So, you know, thank goodness for that. photo credit: wuestenigel Close Up of Woman’s Hand on the Laptop at the Office via photopin (license)

They might as well be written in invisible ink on an egg white. Of course, they are here in my computer, all 50,000+ of them, waiting for me to trim and polish and hard boil. Only after I’ve done that will I allow anyone else to start peeling back the shell and reading them.

It’ll be a while. I’m excited about the book I just spent a huge number of hours drafting, but it’ll be many times that number of hours before I manage to turn it into something I’m proud to share. For now I’ll set is aside and let the hastily scribbled words soak into the eggshell while I change direction for a bit and write something completely different. Maybe I’ll see if I can put together some microfiction. I have a great idea for a story featuring a dashing 16th century polymath who breaks his friends out of prison using only a bowl of egg salad.

Excuses and Cocoa

It’s Thursday, which means this is the day each week when I would normally write a bunch of nonsense to send out into the blogosphere. I’m not doing that today for two reasons:

1. It’s the third Thursday of November, and I am not yet finished writing my 50,000 truly terrible words for National Novel Writing Month.

2. My kids are home for a snow day today, on this crisp fall day in Missouri in November. If you’re not from my corner of the world that may not seem like a big deal to you, but it’s kind of a big deal. We get snow. We even get snow in November sometimes, but not the kind that blankets the entire yard and makes me have to find everyone insulated pants that fit so they can sled and build snowmen. And beg for hot chocolate.

hot-chocolate-1908099__340
Some of the locals have taken to using the word “Snow-vember.” I do not approve.

So you see, I’d blog, but instead I need to dig through the snow clothes in the basement, throw snowballs at my kids, make cocoa, and write at least 3,000 words of an awful draft. You understand, right?

In the meantime, please enjoy this piece I wrote recently for the online literary magazine, Women Writers, Women’s Books. It’s about writing, rather than history, but it does contain an amusing story about my grandmother’s terrible cooking.

http://booksbywomen.org/the-importance-of-writing-nonsense-by-sarah-angleton/

Have a great day!

 

50,000 Words and Lots of Paint Dribbles

In 1508 Pope Julius II decided the Sistine Chapel with its blue, star-spangled ceiling was in need of a little interior punching up, and he knew just the artist for the job. Already the thirty-three-year-old sculptor Michelangelo was hard at work on the Pope’s marble tomb and it was only grudgingly that he accepted the new commission.

Not known for painting, the artist had made a name for himself producing marble masterpieces like Pietà and David, carefully detailing human anatomy and capturing subtle expressions of emotion like no one else. He hadn’t really had a great deal of experience with painting, and none with frescoes.

mikey
I bet this young Michelangelo wondered from time to time if he could really be a ninja. photo credit: Gonmi Tortuga Ninja via photopin (license)

There are some theories about why the pope may have approached this unlikely choice to spruce up the chapel ceiling. Perhaps Pope Julius, not especially happy with his tomb-in-progress anyway, decided it might be tempting fate for his tomb to be built while he was still alive and so wished to redirect the artist’s efforts. It’s possible, too, that some of Michelangelo’s biggest rivals on the art scene encouraged the choice, suspecting the sculptor would fail spectacularly when forced to work in such a different medium.

Obviously that notion backfired. Though he claimed to have despised every moment of it, Michelangelo bent and stretched and painted his heart out above his head. Over the years he worked on the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo sealed his reputation as one of the greatest painters in history, and got quite a bit of paint on his face.

ceiling
I mean for a non-painter, it’s not too bad. By By Aaron Logan, from http://www.lightmatter.net/gallery/italy/4_G & Talmoryair [CC BY 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons
I share this story today, on November 1, because this is the day when a lot of artists throughout the world are stepping out to create something new. Today is the kickoff for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), that time of year when otherwise sane people from all walks of life, sit down at their computers (or typewriters, or notebooks) and attempt to scribble out a minimum of 50,000 words that will hopefully become the rough draft of a novel.

Some of these folks, like me, have written novels before, and though 50,000 words in a month can be a pretty tall order, they may not find the experience too overwhelming. However many other NaNo writers aren’t quite sure what they’ve gotten themselves into. They have regular day jobs and responsibilities that have nothing to do with writing, and the experience can seem pretty uncomfortable and messy.

But they have these great ideas that’ve been tickling the backs of their minds for years just looking for an opportunity to jump onto a page and into the world.

These are the writers I think are the most exciting part of NaNoWriMo, and the reason that year after year, more and more people join in the agony fun. Not everyone will finish. Even some of the more seasoned writers won’t make it to the end of 50,000 poorly written words. Those that do will find the hard work has only just begun.

But that’s okay. Even Michelangelo took a break in 1510 from painting the chapel ceiling. When he returned to the work, it was with a new eye and a somewhat altered style, and that is when he produced many of the most iconic scenes, including The Creation of Adam.

adam
This kind of iconic image is probably worth a little agony and a few paint dribbles on your face. Michelangelo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
He was still in agony and struggled with the work, writing in a poem to a friend (because Michelangelo was also not a poet, who wrote quite a bit of poetry), “My painting is dead. . .I am not in the right place—I am not a painter.”

In this next thirty days, I suspect a lot of NaNo writers, experienced or not, will utter similar words. They may hit walls when they feel overwhelmed and exhausted by a creative effort that pushes them outside their usual spheres.

When they do, and when I do, I hope we remember that the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was painted by a man who claimed he was not a painter and who suffered a lot of cricks in his neck and had a lot of paint on his face. But this amazing work is imbued with the exquisite textural depth perhaps only a sculptor could have produced and that millions of people have literally looked up to.

I hope we remember that no one would ever tell our stories the way we will tell them. Whether you’ve written twenty-seven novels or work as a full-time accountant but have one really great idea for a book, know that even when you think your writing is dead, you’re not in the right place, and you have paint dribbling onto your face, your words might offer a perspective and textural depth the world has never yet seen.

Happy NaNoWriMo!