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!

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

Commas and Em Dashes

Good Thursday morning to you all! This post isn’t really a post. It’s really just an explanation of why I am not posting this week…Because I’m editing!

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This is not my novel. This is a picture from Pixabay. No sneak peeks! Unless perhaps you are the kind of person who likes to review books. If that’s the case, we should talk.

Or rather, I’m carefully following 98.9% of the advice offered by a much more talented editor than me, one who doesn’t fling commas around willy-nilly, use inappropriate ellipses, and who knows her way around an em dash. I cringe to think what she would do with that last sentence.

So, what am I editing? Thank you for asking. I’m editing a book. To be precise, I’m editing my book, a (an? you can see why I need help) historical novel that will be published in early September, when it will immediately climb to the bestseller lists because of its prodigious use of em dashes. Also mummies. Did I mention it has mummies? And murder. Maybe a little bit of mayhem, too. And even a hint of romance.

Have a great week!

I’m No Mozart

We’re in full on summer mode here. My kids have been out of school for almost two weeks and in that time we’ve gone swimming several times, spent a day at Six Flags, hosted visiting relatives, gotten too much sun, caught fireflies, climbed boulders, picnicked alongside a babbling creek, played with friends, and stayed up too late. It’s been a busy, fun couple of weeks, but it hasn’t left a lot of time for blogging.

I’m going to be honest here. In between loading the cooler, packing and unpacking the car, and keeping up with the mounds of laundry produced by so much summer fun, I have given very few moments of thought to this week’s blog topic. Frankly, I haven’t come up with much because I’ve been preoccupied. And why do today what can be put off until tomorrow, right?

mozart
Why yes, I did find my blog topic in a random meme on Facebook. What? I looked into it.

I figure if Mozart could manage to write the overture to Don Giovanni the night before its scheduled premiere in Prague, surely I can rattle off a post at the last minute.

According to somewhat well documented legend, Mozart went out for a drink the evening of October 28, 1787, where he encountered someone who reminded him that his opera collaboration with Italian poet Lorenzo da Ponte still lacked an overture. Mozart, who surely knew this already, allegedly pointed to his head and responded, “It’s all in here.”

Apparently it was, because the composer returned to his boarding house where he enlisted the help of his wife to regale him with stories and keep him awake while he worked. By 7 o’clock the next morning, the copyist set to work and the evening of October 29, 1787, the orchestra sight read the overture in front of the audience. The talented musicians knocked it out of the park and the audience went wild, because Mozart. He tweaked the piece a little for later performances, but there’s no question Mozart demonstrated that procrastination and greatness can coexist.

Of course I’m pretty sure this post won’t go down in history as a great example of the best that history/humor blogs have to offer. If I had allowed myself more time, I could have written something much better, more humorous, more thoughtful, or more profound. It might even be already composed more or less entirely in my head, but I’m no Mozart. And I’d rather get back to the pool.

A Most Inestimable Piece of Balderdash

In 1834, not long after submitting to the Southern Literary Messenger the disturbing story “Berenice,” in which a man yanks the teeth from his wife’s corpse only to discover that she wasn’t quite dead after all, Edgar Allan Poe sent something equally disturbing to the magazine. What he offered was a harsh critical review of the book Confessions of a Poet by Laughton Osborn, who may have been somewhat less cheerful than his name suggests.

In the beginning of his book, Osborn (publishing anonymously) claimed he would commit suicide upon completion of the work and that as he began the book, he placed a loaded pistol on the table beside him for that purpose. Poe astutely pointed out that even were he to work quickly, the poet would not likely complete a book in less than thirty days. By then the powder in the load would no longer be usable and the world might be unfortunately subjected to a sequel of Confessions.

poe
I have pretty thick skin, but this is not a man I’d want to have leaving a review for my book. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Even for a man known for writing dark words, that’s pretty heartless. A few months later, Poe was charged with writing a review for a novel by well connected New York journalist Theodore S. Fay titled Norman Leslie. Poe called the book a “most inestimable ­piece of balderdash with which the common sense of the good people of America was ever so openly or villainously insulted.”

It wasn’t long before Poe earned something of a reputation as a literary critic, that reputation being mostly that he was an insufferable jerk. Of course, today Poe is far more well-known than either Osborn or Fay, and there were a few authors whose work he actually appreciated.

One of those was Nathaniel Hawthorne, who Poe wrote about in a review of Twice-Told Tales and Mosses from an old Manse for Godey’s Lady’s Book in 1847. There Poe claimed Hawthorne was unoriginal, peculiar, and “infinitely too fond of allegory,” but possessed “the purest style, the finest taste…the most delicate humor…the most consummate ingenuity.” That’s about as high praise as anyone might be able to expect, I think, from the author of a story about getting a man drunk and burying him alive behind a brick wall.

But in the same review, Poe also states that it’s not for him to say whether Hawthorne, or any other author, has impressed his readers. And he’s right. Because ultimately the people who read a work, the majority of whom probably don’t write harsh critical reviews for a living, get to decide whether or not they enjoyed it.

I have to assume that Poe would find the state of book reviews today pretty irritating, full of flattery and lacking (hopefully) in the suggestion that the author’s suicide would be preferable to a sequel. But I think it’s kind of great that in this era of Amazon and social media, the book reviews that matter most are the simple ones in which readers tell other readers the gist of what they thought.

And reviews really do matter, not only because word of mouth and recommendations are the way most people figure out what to add to their pile of books to read, but also because the fairies that live inside our computers give the numbers of reviews a great deal of weight when determining what to present to the next reader to come along in search of a book.

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Sample review: “Five Stars…This book has absolutely given new life to my furniture!”

I’ve been very fortunate so far. My book Launching Sheep & Other Stories from the Intersection of History and Nonsense has been out for about three weeks and in that time it has received ten reviews on Amazon and several on Goodreads. As a bonus, not one has called it a “most inestimable ­piece of balderdash.” Yet.

I am so grateful for all those who have added Launching Sheep to their pile of books to be read (both real and virtual), for those who have already flipped through it, and to the folks who have actually even read it and are already using it to prop up the wobbly ends of their sofas. And I am overwhelmingly grateful to the people who have taken the time to offer their thoughts, especially on Amazon where the computer fairies are particularly nosy.

If you have read the book, and think it might be worth someone else’s time, would you please consider leaving a review? It really doesn’t have to be long and pretentious, or cleverly harsh. Just a simple sentence or two about what you liked or didn’t like is all it takes. If you genuinely don’t have the time or inclination, though it might briefly occur to me that you’re unoriginal, peculiar, and infinitely too fond of allegory, I promise I will still think you’re a lovely person, and I really am delighted you were interested enough to read it at all.