A Quick Sunday Blog

Just a quick blog, today (because I got out of the habit and almost forgot to write one), where I’ll give a bit of a status report.

I. On Conventions…
I have nothing new to say about Ravencon (outside of a second reminder that I’ve been invited to be a guest there next year). It’s still more than half a year away, and I really don’t expect a lot that I can tell you for most of that time.
That said, it occurs to me that it’s been a while since I updated the convention calender. I think I’ll be doing that over the course of the next week, so if you know of any new sci-fi conventions, or local conventions I may not have heard of, PLEASE let me know. (I’ve been making this plea for several years, now; I’ve had exactly ONE person ever give me any info, and it was for a convention I already knew about. Still, hope springs eternal).

II. On my future books…
I’m currently writing In Division Imperiled, Book III of the Law of Swords series. I figured that, with the way I ended In Forgery Divided, you readers would want me to get that out as soon as possible.

It’s going well and I’m writing steadily, albeit much slower than I’d like, but I fully expect that there will come a point that it stalls out and I need to take a break from it (it’s happened in the middle of every book I’ve ever written).  When that happens, I will set it aside and FINALLY start pushing the long-delayed “The Merrimack Event” out the door.

When both of those things are done, I think the next project will be By Claw and Arrow, the sequel to The Kitsune Stratagem.  For some reason, even though I personally believe this is better written than In Treachery Forged was, this is a less popular series.  If I’ve learned anything from In Forgery Divided, however, it’s that releasing Book 2 can inspire new interest in Book 1; here’s hoping that’s the case, here.

And I’m not projecting my plans past that.  I tried that when I started this whole self-publishing thing, and I fear trying to keep to those plans was partly why In Forgery Divided was two years overdue.

III.  Other News

I don’t really have any other news.  I do have other creative projects I’m doing outside of writing — some I’m doing myself, others I’m waiting for other people on.

For example, my mother is writing some (non-fiction, in case it needs to be said) books on sewing and quilting; eventually, she may finish one of those, and I’ll be helping her publish those.

For another example, I had an idea for a computer game, which I’m working on during my “off hours” (i.e., hours where I am not able to work on my books).  The best way to describe it, I would think, would be “Sid Meier’s Pirates meets Skyrim.”  It’s so far outside of my capabilities to create a computer game of this scope I don’t even know why I’m bothering, but I’m hoping I can at least get enough done on it that maybe it would be worth something to someone who could do it.  If anyone has any suggestions for what to do after I’m done with the part of the game design I’m capable of doing (which would include, uh, none of the programming), please let me know.

And that’s it for this week.  Maybe I’ll have something more interesting next week.

The BIG News! (Manage your expectations — it’s not that big)

I have good news (for me)! I want to manage your expectations a bit, though — it isn’t a new book coming out (though it may push me to try and finish up another book or two a little faster).

I’ve recieved my first ever invitation to appear as a programming guest at a convention — in this case, Ravencon. This isn’t out of the blue. I had to apply to be a guest, but I doubt that all applicants get accepted, so it’s nice to get the invite.

Now, I’ve been a PANELIST, before — I used to regularly appear as a fanfic panelist at numerous Anime conventions of various sizes (Katsucon, Otakon, AnimeUSA, and the very first Nekokon), starting in the 90s (whether it was 97 or 98, I can’t be sure) and last appearing in 2005.  And I was scheduled to appear on a panel at CapitalCon, before that convention was suddenly cancelled.  The difference (in part) is the number of panels the guest is required to appear on, the amount of promotion that guests recieve, and the expected credentials of a guest versus a panelist.

So, it’s my first appearance as a pro, the first convention where I (should) be on multiple panels, the first time I’ll be on a panel at a sci-fi convention (as opposed to an anime convention), etc., etc.

For a lot of writers, it’s just a bit of fun and an opportunity to meet their fans. At this point in MY career, however, it’s a major milestone; an acknowledgement of my bona fides by an organization that frequently deals with professional writers.

I would really like to get two more books out between now and then. Having briefly heard about my editor’s schedule over the next few months, that schedule could be tight (I use a different editor and cover artist for each series, so if I actually take the time off of writing “In Division Imperiled” to release it, I could easily push “The Merrimack Event” out in time. I’m still only half-way through the next Maelgyn book, though, and apparently the earliest the editor of THAT series can start work on it is next January. For perspective, when it came to “In Forgery Divided,” my editor started work in a September and I didn’t get it out until that March. Ravencon is in late April, so I’d need to get it done faster than that. And that’s assuming I get the book finished by January; if I take the time off to get “The Merrimack Event” out, it might take me longer than that. Sorry, I write slow).

Schedules might be tight, but I’m going to aim for that as a goal, anyway; I might not make it, but I can try.

And then all I have to do is try not to embarrass myself too badly in front of the crowds at Ravencon.

Back in the Blogging Business… Tentatively

So, I’m sure some people out there, who didn’t see my last post, are wondering where I’ve been the past few weeks. Well, I mentioned recently that I was expecting the Sunday Blogs to be less regular, but I wasn’t intending quite so long a break between posts.

Part of the problem was sheer “laziness,” I’ll have to admit. I haven’t been working on posts for this blog quite as much as I used to, because the times I normally spend on it have been cut down somewhat and I haven’t worked to free up additional time elsewhere. The bigger issue, however, was that my blog software went haywire, and I was trying to figure out how to fix it without wiping out all of my previous blog posts to do it.

I won’t go into details as to what was going wrong (a few details are in the last blog post; I was originally intending to delete that post, but I figure I’ll just leave it archived for now). Suffice it to say the problems were bad enough that any new blog posts taking more than a few minutes to write were almost impossible to add.

Things are fixed, now, however… I think. The problem seems to have been caused when my ISP tried to “update” my WordPress software, which I had already manually updated to the latest version. One update corrupted the other in a few minor ways, and suddenly the whole blog was lagging like mad, things were going haywire, and I had to temporarily disable and delete several plug-ins (I’ve now been able to re-install most of them, but I lost my entire statistical history. A relatively minor loss compared to what I’d feared, but still an issue).

But I am back in business… I hope. And just in time — I have some very good (at least for me) news to share; I just need to make things official, first. So expect an announcement next weekend, and maybe a resumption (at least an irregular one) of the Sunday Blogs.

Edit:  Comments closed to prevent spam.

Test Post

My blog software has gotten a bit wonky, which has made writing my usual Sunday Blogs next to impossible. This test post is to see if I can still edit POSTED blogs (as I appear unable to edit un-posted blogs and save that data from session to session).  Certain data and settings aren’t saving from session to session, my stats plug-in is sending me monthly statistical breakdowns in email every 30 seconds instead of every 30 days, and more. I’ve sent e-mails to various tech support providers (ISP, WordPress, and the affected plug-in authors). I’m hoping to get everything fixed soon.

This test post will remain up until I’ve got enough bugs worked out to start posting regularly again.

I’ve Been Neglecting This Blog Lately…

So, two of the past four weekends, I’ve forgotten my Sunday Blog. I almost forgot it tonight, as well, but I remembered in time to make this post. Oops.

Mostly, I’ve just been forgetting to post the things I’m writing.  That’s partly because I haven’t been very good about realizing what day of the week it is, lately (weekends and weekdays have seemed to be a lot alike), but part of it is just that I’m not sure what to write.

I have a lot of posts I’ve started waiting for completion for this blog, but all of them require more time to write than I usually put into this blog in a week (and, if you’ve been following this blog for a while, you know how long my blogs can usually get, so you might have some idea why these would take a while).

I could continue to talk up my already released books, like In Treachery Forged, In Forgery Divided, and The Kitsune Stratagem. I could give progress reports on my ongoing projects, such as The Merrimack Event (uh… yeah, I need to do something with that. I haven’t done anything with that manuscript since the last time I talked about it, even though it just needs an editor and cover art to be released) or In Division Imperiled (without giving spoilers, I can’t really say much about it beyond reciting my depressingly low daily word counts. I’m hoping the writing will speed up before too long, because I like the content I’m writing more than I usually do when my writing slows this much).

However, these are exactly the sorts of things I’m trying to AVOID talking about on this blog. I want to come up with content that is, you know, interesting — not stuff that will drive readers away.

I might have an idea I can get ready by next week, but if anyone has suggestions for what they want to see out of this blog in the future let me know. Otherwise, don’t be surprised if posting becomes a bit more irregular.

Note:  Comments closed due to spambots.

On Giving (and asking for) Writing Advice

I thought I had posted this blog last week.  I could have sworn I had, but when I went in to write this week’s Sunday blog I discovered I hadn’t.  Nor was there any mention of it on my Twitter or Facebook feeds.  Oops.  So, slightly revised to accound for the week’s difference, here is the blog that was supposed to be out last Sunday.

Earlier this (or rather, last) week, in a writer’s group on Facebook, a fellow poster posed the following question:

“How do I best handle a character’s accent?”

I can’t find the post in question any more (either it was deleted, Facebook’s notorious “algorythm” is hiding it from me, or it just aged too far back for me to find it), but it had me thinking.

I might have been able to help that person. I like helping my fellow writers, where I can. I’ve done a lot of study just for that reason, and have learned tips and techniques that I’ll probably never use professionally just so that I can give advice when it’s asked for.  But that means, when someone asks a question like “How do I best handle a characters accent?” I come up not with one, but dozens of possible answers… yet I also know that such a question doesn’t provide nearly enough information to give a quality answer, and depending on the details I may not know the right way to answer it:

What genre is the story written in?  What language do your characters regularly speak in?  When is it set?  How important is the character speaking it?  Why is portraying the accent important?  How thick is it?  Does the accent come from regional variations or a foriegn language?

All of those questions matter to my answer.

If your characters don’t speak English (or whatever language you’re writing your novel in), that adds a complicating factor — a French speaker, for example, will have different pronunciation oddities when they’re speaking Japanese versus when they’re speaking English.

If your book is set in the past or the future, colloquialisms will be different, possibly too different for modern readers to recognize (as I said in a previous post, you can’t use the phrase “making lemons out of lemonade” in a setting where they haven’t discovered the lemon, yet.  Similarly, without appropriate context to set it up, it’d be very hard for most modern readers to know what you’re talking about if you refer to brothels as “stews” or candied plums as “suckets.”  And it’s very hard to establish a character’s accent and provide the appropriate context at the same time).

If the character speaking this accent has a small role or only appears in the story for one scene, at most, you have less time to show that accent, and subtler accents will be harder to demonstrate to your audience (despite that rather oversimplified and cliché bit of writing advice, you may have to do more “tell,” less “show,” if you want your readers to know this character has an accent).  If this character has a major role and will appear repeatedly throughout the book, you can take your time to let the reader see it properly.

Why is it important that this character speak with an accent?  Is it a subtle clue (or a read herring) that this character is a spy?  Is it being used to ostracize the character?  Is it just to add color to the story and background to the character?  All of these questions will affect how the accent is best portrayed, whether it should be subtle, whether it is something the reader can\should notice early on, etc., etc.

How thick is this accent supposed to be?  Any accent thick enough will be “noticed” by your other characters, though they may not necessarily be able to place it.  The thicker it is, the more the other characters can react to it.  The subtler it is, you’ll have to give other clues to your readers to show it off.

Does the accent belong to a foriegn language (i.e., Russian) or is it regional (i.e., Southern)?  It makes a difference in how easy it can be to portray an accent — you can show a milder Russian accent just by slipping in the occasional “da” or “nyet,” but if you want it to be a REALLY thick Russian accent you may have to learn a few basics of Russian Grammar to portray the sorts of mistakes your Russian character will make in his speech.  A Southern accent can be portrayed with a few “Y’all”‘s, but you might be better off adding in some uniquely Southern sayings like “Bless their heart,” instead.

This is why I’ll probably never write a book on writing advice. For all too many of the questions that writers actually need advice on, there are too many variables for a “one size fits all” answer.  When you try, you end up with trite, over-generalized catch-phrases like “Show, don’t tell!” and suggestions that might be beneficial in moderation, but taken to the extremes often recommended will have you performing surgery with a chainsaw on your manuscript, like “get rid of all your adverbs!”

Let’s face it — while I like to think I’m a first-rate storyteller, I’m not perfect (few of us are).  From a technical perspective, I’m not the best writer around.  I’m aware of what my flaws are, and do my best to improve on those flaws and to fix them where possible (I don’t obsess over them, however — I’m a strong believer in “the perfect is the enemy of the good enough.”).

Even so, while I will read (or listen) and consider anything any other author has to say on the subject of writing, I generally disregard any “writer advice” that doesn’t fit my personal tastes.  I feel blindly taking such advice, even of people who I acknowledge are better technical writers than I am, might make my writing worse, not better.

That includes “get rid of all your adverbs” and “show, don’t tell.”  There are SOME occasions where both principles will help (I nearly ruined “The Kitsune Stratagem” because I was using adverbs to handle point-of-view problems; thankfully, my editor pointed out the issue and I was able to fix it.  Fortunately, he was a good one, and didn’t tell me to get rid of ALL my adverbs, as some do; he just pointed out the problem and let me cut out the adverbs that needed to be cut and leave in the ones that made sense to leave in).  That said, there are plenty of times where using an adverb makes more sense than not using one, and many times where yes, you do need to TELL people what’s going on rather than show it.

Too much of the writing advice out there has become so generalized it actually harms writers more than it helps them (like Elmore Leonard’s “10 Rules for Writing” AS IT IS POPULARLY REPORTED.  His actual rules include tons of caveats that are almost never included, and those caveats are IMPORTANT, as he details examples for why\how\when they might be broken.  And even with the caveats, I think he’s a bit too strict on several issues).  As Kristine Kathryn Rusch says, follow these rules too strictly and your individual “voice” is gone; it all becomes “Serious Writer Voice.”

I always try to help my fellow writers where I can.  I’m more than willing to answer questions.  But if you have a specific question for me, know that (1) I may need a LOT more information before I can answer it, and (2) I may not have an answer… and if I do, make sure my advice actually works  for YOU.  Don’t let anyone’s “rules for writing” kill your voice.

Note:  Comments closed due to spammers.

In Forgery Divided Now in Print… (finally!)

It may have taken two months, three proof copies, an emergency consult with my cover artist, and some frantic e-mails to Createspace to resolve the cover issue, but as readers of my Facebook page, twitter account, and\or mailing list have already heard, In Forgery Divided has FINALLY been released in Print. I’ll include a list of a few places you can get it from, below. (This post is currently in draft form; if it is accidentally posted prematurely, please note that I’m waiting for those links to be generated before adding them)

This marks the completion of any substantial work on this book, with the possible exception of some minor marketing I might do as opportunities arise. This clears the way for me to start my next writing project.

At the moment, the plan is for that project to be In Division Imperiled, the third book in that series. Past experience says such plans are worth less than the paper they are printed on (wait, they’re on my computer, not printed on paper. Though I’m not sure that makes any difference), but at any rate I’ll finally be writing again! For a writer, I don’t seem to be doing that often enough.

At any rate, here are the links to the print edition:

From Createspace

From Amazon

From (space reserved for updates as I find links)

I sometimes see people ask “which vendor would be the best to buy from for the author?”  Well, buying from Createspace gives the author the most money, Amazon gives the author mid-tier money and improves Amazon Bestseller rankings (which might help sell the book to others), and other places improve Nielson rankings (which might encourage future purchases by brick-and-mortar stores).  So… buy wherever you want for whatever reason you want.  All of it can help.

In Forgery Divided, Two Months In

It’s been (very roughly) two months since In Forgery Divided‘s release, and I thought I would do a little comparison and contrast for the sales between it and it’s predecessor, In Treachery Forged.

First, a few differences in how the releases went:  When I released In Treachery Forged, it only took me one month to get the print book out.  Two months in and there still is no print edition for In Forgery Divided, and the biggest delay has been the cover.  (I just couldn’t bring myself to approve that cover.  I went back to my cover artist to see if he could help, and he’s sent me a “watered down” version that might not become quite so blacked out in print.  A new proof just arrived, and it actually looks like it’s supposed to.  I’ll have to make a quick check to make sure nothing odd has creeped into it since my last proof, but I should be approving it this week regardless).

The world has changed some; namely, taxes on eBooks in Europe have gone up significantly (they used to be a negligible sales tax; now they’re a 20% VAT tax)

Also, I attempted a few more new-release promotions, trying to get advertisements on Awesome Gang and another company (which I’m not linking to here; from what I can tell, they never showed my ad after agreeing to do so, negotiating a fee, and scheduling a date to show it.  They also never charged me, however, so I suppose it’s no harm, no foul).  I should also note I have twice as many Facebook followers, twenty more mailing list members, infinitely more twitter followers (I opened my twitter account for the first time a few months after In Treachery Forged’s release, so one person would be infinitely more), and… oh, yeah — this blog.

Some things remain the same.  The prices for both are identical at US$5.99, and I haven’t (for either book) run any price promotions; I will note that some portion of oversees books (mostly in Europe) will cost readers more because of the aforementioned changes in tax laws.  Both times, I submitted the cover to the Monthly Indie eBook Cover Design Awards (one difference:  For In Treachery Forged, I was able to submit the cover such that, by a fluke, it was shown by these awards during its first month of release.  For In Forgery Divided, however, it only showed up on the awards well into the second month after publication).  Both books have been given wide releases; I have never availed myself of Amazon’s KDP Select marketing program because of the exclusivity demands.

With that out of the way…

Two months in, with In Forgery Divided, I had sold a total of 1,505 eBooks (and a lone print book, but we can ignore that for now).  Or, rather, I sold 1548 eBooks and had 43 returns for a net of 1,505.  Most of them (1,406 of these net sales) were purchased on Amazon.com’s US store.  I also had 8 net sales on Amazon.uk (curiously, I had 4 returns, so 1/3 of my gross UK sales were returned at that point — by far the largest percentage at the time.  This trend did NOT continue, but at the time I was wondering if something odd was was going on), 20 net on Amazon.de (Germany), 2 from Amazon.fr (France), 4 net from Amazon.in (India), 1 from Amazon.bs (Brasil), 26 net from Amazon.ca (Canada), 27 net from Amazon.au (Australia), 7 from Nook (two of these sales are not technically part of the 1,505 figure even though they did occur in the first two months; the explanation for why is too long and involved for here), and 6 from Smashwords.  (I may have sold as many as 3 additional copies through Apple iBooks via Smashwords during this period; those weren’t credited to my account for another month, however, so I couldn’t count them here. I now go to Apple directly, thanks to my brother owning an Apple computer).

Most of those sales didn’t start until the book was in its second week of sales, but when it started selling it went right up the charts.  I do not have screencaps, but in 2014, I had a few weeks in the top-50 (topping, for one day, in the top-20) on several genre list bestsellers.  At the peak on those lists, I was getting 50-100 sales a day.

I will note that those 1,505 sales were roughly half of my sales of In Treachery Forged prior to publishing In Forgery Divided (which sparked a resurgence of sales in the former).  Another thousand (roughly) were sold over the next four months, and since then the sales dropped to a mere trickle, selling a mere 500 copies over the next year and a half.  So, what my experience with In Treachery Forged suggests is that the “New Release” burst of sales, even when successful, only lasts about six months (to a degree, I saw the same pattern with The Kitsune Stratagem, but that book never had the sales of In Treachery Forged).  Ideally, I’d have another book out before then… but it took over two years for Book 2 to come out.  (I’ll try to be faster with Book 3)

Unsurprisingly (given that not everyone who buys the first book of a series will buy its sequels… especially after a two year wait), sales for In Forgery Divided have not been as strong (on their own, anyway; as I said, it inspired a resurgence in sales of In Treachery Forged, which is making up much of the difference).  They’ve been pretty good, however, considering how long it took me to get book 2 out.

In Forgery Divided’s sales started strong, with its heaviest day of sales occuring just a week and a half after it was published.  The totals for the (roughly) first two months of sales are as follows:

Total Gross Sales:  702 (note: Amazon gives you three different ways of checking your sales; your ranking on the sale page, a graph on your sales dashboard, and a full accounting of your “month-to-date sales.”  These all report at different rates; I’m using the month-to-date sales for these records, because it’s the only one of these that also lets me know about returns… but it’s also the slowest one to report.  I think I have somewhere between 3-5 more gross sales that haven’t been accounted for in this record, yet)

Total Net Sales:  694 (only 8 returns, total?  That’s a real improvement over In Treachery Forged’s initial release)

Net Amazon.com (US) Sales:  603

Net Amazon.co.uk (UK) Sales:  31

Net Amazon.de (Germany) Sales:  18

Net Amazon.fr (France) Sales:  1

Net Amazon.ca (Canada) Sales:  8

Net Amazon.au (Australia) Sales:  27

Net Smashwords sales:  2

Net Nook Sales:  3

Net Apple iBooks Sales:  1

Far fewer returns, even accounting for the fewer sales.  I guess people who read book I are less likely to return book II.

UK sales are much stronger (the UK did, eventually, become the #2 purchaser of “In Treachery Forged,” but for some reason most of those sales didn’t start coming in until four months after its release), and there are even small improvements to sales in Australia and Germany.

It’s only in the US (both on Amazon and with the other vendors) where my initial sales are significantly weaker.  And much of that gap is being compensated for by sales boosts for my other books — over the past two months, the boost in sales to In Treachery Forged can account for approximately five hunded eBooks sold, and even my unrelated novel, The Kitsune Stratagem, has had another twenty or thirty sales generated by the new book release.

I’m not really sure what to make of these numbers, just yet, but as time goes on and I get more data ponts to go on, these numbers might start to mean something.

In the meantime, I’d better keep writing — I want to know what effect Book III will have on sales.

Weird Research: The Michael Palin Travelogues, Part I: Around the World In Eighty Days

Sheesh, can that title get any longer?

As I said in a previous post, I wanted to revamp my “Weird Research” series. It was getting too much to be a “how to use Wikipedia” tutorial, which was almost the exact opposite of what I wanted to accomplish with that series (Wikipedia has its uses, don’t get me wrong, but you need MORE than Wikipedia for research).  My goal was to show that there are things you never thing to research until you need them, and ways to research that you might never have thought of.  I might have managed to demonstrate the former, but not the later.

So, I figured I would do something fun, by watching the Michael Palin travelogues and taking “notes” for novel research from what I was watching… or at least tell you a little about what I see. Honestly, you should watch these things whether you’re doing research for a book or not.

The first of the travelogues is “Around the World in 80 Days.” And no, it’s not exactly a re-enactment of the Jules Verne novel.

Episode I:

The first episode (filmed from 1988-1989, released first on television in 1989, and on DVD in 2007) begins with establishing the trip. Michael Palin initially (well, at least for the camera) turns down the job, because he doesn’t have eighty days to film it in. It goes into preparation (including getting himself a physical, taking a number of vaccinations, packing, learning how to deal with various different types of crisis, discussing the issues of traveling from point to point, etc.). Interspersed in these scenes is him leaving by high-class British railway train (and later the Orient Express) in a nice suit (which is actually required for part of the train journey, which I would not have thought about), drinking champagne and eating a meal. It’s a good example of the kind of work that you need to do before going on a long journey.

He learns that the particular cabin he was in on the train had, during World War II, been a mobile brothel for soldiers.  While they don’t go into many details on that, it is a starting point to launch further research.

A strike forces him to leave the Orient Express, and instead take a bus to Venice, where he checks into a hotel located on a road he translates as “Pity Street.”  The hotel looks much more middle-class than I’ve seen from most travelogues, which adds a sense of earthiness and realism to the show.

It was a little run down, with peeling paint and wallpaper, but there he spends the night (without complaint).  The next morning he has time for a little exploration, going down the Venitian Canals on a (literal) garbage scow.  Much like a trash truck, the scow picks up trash bags from the side of the street and toss them into a bin.  Any bags which miss the bin have to be fished out by a pole.  He eventually encourages the garbageman he’s with to sing a somewhat bawdy (in italian) song.

Before leaving, he mails home the suit he wore on the Orient Express (he figures he won’t need it any more) and boarded a ferry (or perhaps a cruise ship?)  to cross the Mediterranean in, heading to Cairo by way of Athens.  He quickly demonstrates how easy it is to get lost on the ship.

There is an example of a unique form of bridge (instead of a drawbridge that raises to allow ships to pass, the bridge is lowered into the water underneath the ship), followed by a really narrow canal trip where he could have reached out from the ship and touched the walls.

He has video from Greece of the Ef-zones, one of the more… unusually outfitted military units out there, showing the changing of the guard (which, he says, they seem to do “in the most complicated way possible.”).  Then he has a demonstration of assembling the F-Zone uniforms, which take two people to put on.

But that’s all he has of Greece before he’s back on the cruise ship to Alexandria.  He briefly has some shots of him “helping” in the kitchens, though he quickly concludes that his work there was a boring film segment, and he transitions to a “grand Euro blow-out” dinner prior to hitting Egypt.

The episode concludes with him trying desperately to contact his bank as they enter the port at Alexandria, Egypt, while cameras filmed various ships that appeared to be in distress.

Episode II:

The second episode of this set begins with Michael Palin meeting a very interesting character picking him up in a horse-drawn carriage, of sorts.  Apparently, the driver’s name is Larry (actually Achmed, it is later revealed) and so is the horse’s name.  He ends up in the Alexandrian train (?) station, trying to get tickets for the next part of his journey.

The street scenes are interesting, with people in various forms of dress (styles both ancient and modern), doing various things you wouldn’t see happening on US streets, but he quickly passes through Alexandria and takes the train to Cairo.  On this train, he is able to get tea, but not milk or cream for it.  They show horrible traffic in Cairo, attend a “football” (soccer, for us US-Americans) game, and then he hunts down a non-chain hotel — the Hotel Windsor.  The hotel looks nice at first, but the plumbing doesn’t seem to work.

He gets talked into participating as an extra in a film shooting in Cairo the next day.  He has time for it, even though his original plans for travel were shot when his ship to the city of Jeddah (sp?) left early.  After quickly making alternate plans, he heads to a local bar to get some tea, only to be given a complimentary hooka to smoke (something he’s dubious about, as he had quit smoking twenty years before).

They show a bit of the behind-the-scenes of the film he’s invited to participate in, which is curiously being filmed in a Safeway supermarket.  If you want to get an idea of what film-making is like when you’re in a foriegn country and not supported by a major Hollywood studio or something comparable, this would be a good (if brief) study.

He makes it to the pyramids, and is talked into briefly riding a camel.  It’s his first time riding a camel (though, having seen all of the travelogues before, I know this isn’t his last).

He goes from the touristy camel-ride at the pyramids to a lousy car-trip in a rather run-down car to the Suez, where he learns that his hastily arranged back-up plan to get to Jeddah has been scuppered; the transport’s journey was cancelled because the ship he was going to take has broken down.

He hastily makes a Plan C, and manages to find a ferry to Saudi Arabia.  This new ship was once a cruise ship, and it shows Michael sitting in several sparsely-populated rooms that were once luxury restaurants and the like juxtaposed with the more populated decks where people are just sort of sprawled out wherever they can find room.  Unfortunately, this hitch in his plans makes it impossible to make his connecting ship.

He tries not to panic, showing videos of him playing dominos and bartering for a watch as they travel, but when he arrives in Jeddah he starts trying to make travel arrangements in ernest.  Still uncertain of his plans, he jogs through town, exploring several pieces of unusual, and oversized, modern art (like a bunch of cars cut in half and stuck in a concrete block).

Things get even worse in his plans — he can’t find a way to his next intended port, but even if he gets there he hears there is no way to make the next part of his journey, either.  He solves this with a car-trip across the desert to an alternate (but more distant) port… but cannot film it, because the Saudi government refuses to allow the camera crew past a certain (unspecified on camera) point.  The episode ends with him “abandoning” his film crew on the side of the road, driving onward.  (The film crew flies to catch up)

Episode III:

He can’t show film of his road trip, but he does have a few photographs as he drives over a thousand miles in  a single weekend.  He reunites with his camera crew in the port of Dubai, where he tries to find a dhow to travel to India in.

Port life is shown, as cows and the like are are loaded on board boats and the like.  Michael negotiates the trip from Dubai to Bombay, on a boat that will take a six day trip.  He must purchase his own food and supplies for the journey, and prepare to sleep on sacks of cargo on the deck of the boat.

He has film footage, briefly, of the ship construction — most of these ships are made in classic manners, using hand tools (including slightly modernized forms of primative tools like a bow drill).  This is a working shipyard, and that was really how they were building ships back then; a remarkable insight into the construction of the ships of yesteryear.

This is one of the most remarkable parts of the series, with the whole episode entirely about the short trip across the red sea on a rickety wooden boat, as everything is done by hand and human power.  The boat does have a motor, but it just as often travels by sail.

Michael tries to communicate with the largely Indian crew, even though few of them speak any English (and those that do speak a very broken form of it).  The crew is poorly paid (the crewman notes he is paid only 300 rupees for the journey across the sea.  A single sale of one of my books in India nets me about the same amount, today (which, converted to US dollars, is about $4).  That doesn’t account for 25 years of inflation, but I imagine it’s still a very small amount for six days of work).

Even the preparation of food is fairly primative, as food is crushed on a stone, and the rice is hand-washed in a basin large enough to feed 20, then is cooked on another stone slab (though this stone is heated by a gas flame).  They use compass, sextants and dead reckoning for navigation.  Dining is communal, featuring Indian cuisine (some form of vegetarian saag with a improvised rice porrage using buttermilk is shown, though there is a discussion of other foods).  Michael lets the members of the crew listen to Bruce Springsteen on his Walkman (yes, Walkman; this was the 80s, remember?).  Much of each day is spent conserving energy, as the weather is too hot to do much when the crew isn’t required to work.  When they do have to work, the work is hard, and involves things like climbing masts, pulling old ropes through wooden pulleys, raising sails, etc.

Overall, it is a remarkable look into merchant sailers, with aspects that translate from time immemorial to (evidently) today.  If you were writing a naval adventure, this would show you quite a bit about daily life on a merchant ship.

However, he falls ill during the boat trip (while he doesn’t say it, I speculate it came from the saag that he so enjoyed; there are likely local pathogens the crew has adapted to that a man from England has never been exposed to).  A crewman tries to treat him with a sort of peculiar form of massage (basically walking on Michael), which does seem to help him some.

Michael ends the boat journey, and the episode, with a hearty and sincere farewell to the crew, with farewells all around, as he believes he will never see these people he made fast friends with.  (I have not seen it, but there is evidently a 20th anniversary special where he goes and finds this crew, and has a tearful reunion with them)

Episode IV:

Michael Palin begins the episode that, from London to Calcutta, he is a week behind what Phileas Fogg managed in Jules Vernes’ novel.  He goes to his hotel (the Taj, theoretically the most elegant hotel in India; a rare luxury for him in this series) before showing some street scenes.

He has to turn down a young beggar, which visibly disturbs him, as he notes that the begging problem in India was endemic to the city.  This was evidently on a trip to see a blind barber, from whom he gets a very good shave using a straight razor.

He then deals with the train station.  The operations shown at this very crowded (and a lot more modern) train station can be easily juxtaposed with the crowded train station you see earlier in Alexandria, Egypt.

He watches a rather macabre street performance by a snake handler doing a performance with a cobra and a mongoose.  He walks (very briefly) through a shanty town before ending up in a Hindu religious festival.

He juxtaposes this immediately with a Christian Cathedral (given India’s former status as a British Colony, I’d assume it was an Anglican church, but he doesn’t say), where he studies the memorials to fallen soldiers.

More street scenes (if I were writing a book set in modern-day India, I would watch these several times; as it is, mostly what I saw was crowds of people eating and enjoying himself).

A train trip on a very overcrowded Indian train to Madras.  There aren’t many shots of the inside of the train, but lots of very interesting shots of the scenery it passes by — I would not have thought cactuses grew in the wild in India were it not for some of these train shots.

He has an interview with a fellow passenger, who notes that different regions of India were almost like different countries, with different spoken languages, cuisines, and culture.  “You probably shouldn’t speak Hindi in Madras,” she warned.  The English language (leftover from their time as a British colony) may very well be the only thing unifying Northern and Southern India, she says.

Dining on the train is discussed (and demonstrated), as food is purchased when the train makes a brief stop along the route.  He notices the difference in food between Bombas and Madras, talking about how the food is getting spicier the closer he gets to the later city.

Arriving in the city, he goes on a dangerous bike-rickshaw ride to his hotel across a highway shared with bicycles, pedestrians, oxcarts, and fast-moving cars.

After checking in, he tries once more (with more street scenes interspersed) to make the arrangements for the next stage, to Singapore.  He runs into a problem with insurance certification, as the ship he wants to go on is only certified to carry 18 people, and it already has a crew of 18.  He tries to make alternative arrangements while the travel company desperately tries to contact the insurer (Lloyd’s of London) to get a waiver.  These alternate arrangements are worse than useless, and the waiver is not allowed, so they have to make a Yugoslav-German-BBC-Cyprus-India international agreement (the captain was Yugoslav, the shipping line was run out of Germany, but the ship itself was owned by someone in Cyprus) to allow him and some of his film crew onto the ship in exchange for flying some of the ship’s crew ahead to Singapore.

As part of the agreement, Michael has to actually work as a deckhand (they show him “swabbing the deck” and painting some of the structure, at least) and as his own sound man for the filming.  They arrive in Singapore knowing he’s about to miss his connecting ship, which would end any hope of completing the journey in time.

Episode V:

You see darkened streets of Singapore as he rushes from launch to van (reuniting with the film crew) to another launch which motors him out four miles into the sea so he can get on board another cargo ship traveling to Hong Kong.  Here he makes up a little time on Phileas Fogg, but he’s still behind.

While he’s not on this ship for very long, having his film crew with him allows him to interview the captain of this container ship and his wife, where it’s pointed out that the ship needs miles of space for both acceleration and deceleration, and how much the Captains of such ships have become less concerned with running day-to-day operations as they are managing the finances.

He arrives in Hong Kong noting that he narrowly avoided two seperate disasters — one of the worst typhoons of the year, and a horrifying incident where a container exploded in the port.

In Hong Kong, instead of typhoons or container explosions, he’s surprised by a limo with champagne service and a drive to a nice luxury hotel (a real 5 star hotel, which gives him a little bit of a odd feeling after several days of sleeping on trains and container ships.

He’s invited to a celebration of reaching the half-way point on his trip, but it’s black tie.  He goes to a Hong Kong tailor who has an international reputation, which has had customers like David Bowie, Henry Kissinger, George Michael, and several other celebrities and politicians from around the world.

While waiting for the suit to be made, he goes to a street gathering of bird owners, where people walk their birds so they can socialize with other birds.  I would never have known there was such a thing in real life, had I not seen it on this show.

A trip to a horse race (the biggest game in town) and he wins a small bet.  The cashier at the racecourse recognizes him, and laughs through the entire transaction.  The next day, he goes to visit an old friend (Basil Pao), who will be his translator and travel companion in China, and later ends up his primary photographer for the next several trips.  Basil turns out to also be the father of Michael’s godson.  They do the math and figure out the baby was born at roughly the same time the journey began.

Basil brings up the point that traveling through China will be difficult, in part, because the local dialects are such that people just 30 kms apart from one another can’t understand each other, even though the written dialect is the same everywhere.

Before departing Hong Kong, he finally attends that party (having picked up his much talked about suit off-camera), where they discuss the then-upcoming reunion of Hong Kong and China, which was still several years away at the time this was filmed.

Passing through customs from Hong Kong to China is very quick — one of the faster border crossings he’s managed — and then he’s in another hotel with very westernized luxury (though with touristy-Chinese artistic stylings).

Before continuing on his journey, he decides to try a rather unique restaurant which only serves dishes made from a particular exotic meat — snake.  It’s a rather disturbing scene, and one which I’ve fast-forwarded through, but the way the restaurant handles and cooks the snakes could be used as interesting background color in a novel.

He gets on a Chinese train (you could make a case study on the differences in different countries and regions’ train conditions just by watching these travelogues), which — he notes — “even in China” has three different classes of passengers.  His “soft” class (the highest class) includes comfortable cabins, excellent food (the best he’s ever had on a train, at least at filming), board games, and a lamp that looks like a fortune teller’s crystal ball.

Most of his fellow passengers in “Soft Class” are from Taiwan — this was in the first year that Taiwanese people were allowed to return to China since the Maoist takeover.  Some of his observations are humorous, but you do have to wonder if there’s truth in them (such as the train’s staff member whose only job seems to be mopping the train’s carpeted floor).  And the train, for the first time on his journey, is on-time, ending the episode.

Episode VI:

Episode VI opens in Shanghai, with a history lesson of the town (noting that the port was mostly built to support the European opium trade, which gave portions of the town a very European architecture.  But only part of it; he goes to an apothecary shop which is very Chinese in style in design).  He purchases some Chinese medicinal energy formulae.

He laments not seeing much of China as he boards a ship traveling to Japan.  Having watched most of his travelogues, I know he will return several times, and see many sights that will never be seen again.

This ship is not a container vessel, but a cruise ship… which  he notes is barely occupied by passengers.  Exploring the ship, he finds a full of futon (the real, traditional style variety, not the nicely cushioned foldaway chairs that you find in the United States) but no other passengers.

He arrives in Yokohama, and promptly takes one of Japans famous bullet trains to Tokyo to meet a shipping agent and negotiate passage on a container ship.

His time in Tokyo, waiting for the ship to be ready, is spent using a BBC reporter as his guide.  He has conveyer-belt sushi, describes Japanese society as a “cultural magpie,” and then participates in some Karaoke.  He goes to a Capsule Hotel, which has a variety of wierd rules and odd television programs.  It’s an interesting interpretation of Japanese culture through his eyes (from my experience, this is just one side of many of Japanese culture, and not an especially flattering one.  I think he finds the experience a little lacking, as well, and returns to Japan in more than one other travelogue)

Afterwards, he boards the container ship, which will be one of the longest (travel-time) stretches of his journey, expending eleven days time.  Much as you could make a comparitive study of train travel from this travelogue, you could make a comparitive study of container ships as well (including another ship’s captain being interviewed about life on the sea).

There’s lots of bad weather, a drunken birthday party, a “celebration” of crossing the International Date Line (a rather psuedo-pagan initiation ceremony and unusual togas made from various nationality’s flags and a rather horrible drink cocktail), and many other attempts to end the boredom of this part of the trip.  He says he’s not sure he’ll ever cross the international dateline again… but, as we’ll see with some of his other journeys, that isn’t true.

And there the episode ends.

Episode VII:

The final episode of this set starts in California.  Michael stays at a hotel built from a permanently landlocked British cruise ship, the Queen Mary.  There’s some fun-looking street theater shown and the like, but he mostly just buzzes right through California to get on board an Amtrack sleeper-car train (yet another comparison point for train travel).

He interviews a few of his fellow passengers (including a professional clown) and crew.  There’s a brief layover in Colorado, where we see hot springs, skiing, a hot air balloon, and a dog-sled team.  Then to Chicago, where he has a near-miss of the final bit of train travel, and so on.  Compared to the first half of the trip around the world, however (okay, technically they passed the half-way point in Episode 6, but the bulk of the second half of the trip around the world is in this episode) there aren’t as many “side trips” focused on, and those that do take place don’t seem to get quite as much focus as the ones in other parts of the series. On the other hand, they have a lot of scenery, a few interesting bits of street entertainment briefly shown, etc.

It may be the film crew just wasn’t as interested in the US, or it may be that they were simply running out of steam, or budget, or something, but this final episode — at least as far as “research project” material is concerned — is a little bare.  It does get him all the way back to England, and he successfully completes the journey in 80 days… barely matching Jules Verne’s Phileas Fogg.  And then they spend about as much time on his return home as they do in America.


Okay, so the above seems more like a dry re-telling of the events in the series instead of proper research, but that’s only a first step. It might sound tedious to do this for everything you ever watch (or at least everything you own on DVD), but when you find something as full of information as these travelogue series it can be worth it.

I have a character in one of my series who is blind — suppose I wanted to have her shave the beard off her husband (a scene that nearly happened in In Forgery Divided, but it never quite materialized).  Well, I can use these notes to locate exactly where to go to find a scene where a blind man works as a barber; I can watch that scene, and I should be able to replicate it (with the differences needed by the story for both plot purposes and to indicate the relationship between shaver and shavee).

I have two different ongoing fantasy series set in a period before modern medicine, and I’m constantly looking for viable folk remedies which “good” doctors with that background might have used.  Well, there was a folk-remedy treatment (which seemed to work) for sour stomaches on a ship that, thanks to these notes, I know I can find in Episode III.

I could go on.  The point is that this is good research material, and these notes have helped me create an “index,” of sorts, for that research.  It’s a wonderful series — Michael Palin’s wit, the stunning cinematography, and even the tension felt as they try to make it to each successive stage of the journey are all as entertaining the tenth or eleventh time you’ve watched these videos as the first.  Yet, as I’ve shown, it’s still research.

Incidentally, you might want to remember that (in the United States, at least) writers (and artists; there’s plenty of good research material for artists, too) can take the money spent acquiring research materials off on their taxes (disclaimer: I am not a tax advisor, so check your local statutes).  So, you might want to go ahead and purchase your own copy of Around the World in 80 Days — and the other Michael Palin travelogues — today.

Jury Duty! (And Some News on the Print Edition)

I was scheduled for Jury Duty this last Thursday. I didn’t think much of it, as I’ve been summoned for Jury Duty five times in 12 years (You aren’t supposed to be scheduled less than 3 years apart, so somewhere along the line I was summoned when I wasn’t eligible) but never had to report in person — a phone call the night before has always been enough to “fulfill my commitment” before. But I had to, this week, and that  took away a couple days I needed for my planned blog post for this weekend.  I do have some news, however.

Despite the jury duty issue, I was able to get in some work on the Print Edition of In Forgery Divided.  I made a few more tweaks to further lighten the cover, and I discovered a small section in the book block that I must have accidentally skipped my first trip through (again, these are all purely book-design issues; they aren’t even typos — the only problems I’ve found this round were where the kerning needed some very slight adjustments).

I’m uploading the corrected files tonight, and if there aren’t any problems then I MIGHT decide to skip the “order a new proof” step and print it after all.  I don’t know — I was burned trying that once — but I can’t think of anything I’m changing which would cause any unexpected problems.  (Then again, if I could think of something, it wouldn’t exactly be an “unexpected” problem, would it?)

I have something close to 24 hours to decide (from past experience, it takes roughly that long for Createspace to approve any files).  If you’ve got an opinion on this, you’ve got about that long to tell me.

So, there’s that.  Meanwhile, the more interesting post I had planned involving research, a travelogue done by a Monty Python alum, and more will be coming out next weekend… barring some other crisis, at least.