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Matt's Occasional Writing Blog

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Hurricane Ian

Thoughts and prayers for all the folks on the southern Gulf Coast. 

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Top Five Most Annoying Platitudes

I'm middle-aged. Which means I'm probably prone to complain about things a little more than I used to.  I'm also a writer, which means I'm a little bit sensitive to how language gets used. So indulge my grumping for a moment, because I expect many of you may share this sentiment.

 

There are some really annoying platitudes that have gotten bandied about lately. I'm not talking about a trendy word (such as "like," which the current crop of teenagers invoke to a degree that would make Shaggy Rogers blush). I mean the phrases of the zeitgeist that I keep running into. They're terrible. Banal. Useless. Here are the five that irk me the most.

 

1. "It is what it is." I don't know of any more pretentious sentiment than "it is what it is." On its own terms, the sentence is redundant meaninglessness. Like saying A = A. You could just stop with "It is." But of course that's not what's meant by this little piece of modern witticism. A person only invokes "it is what it is" when he or she wants to convey understanding of something that is unfortunate or difficult without, you know, necessarily understanding it. It's pretend profundity. Try turning it around by asking, "well, what exactly is it?" They'll curl up like a turtle because they don't really know and have nothing to say.

 

2. "I'll fight you on this." Here's another bit of LARPing parlance that I've been hearing more and more frequently. It's always expressed with feigned earnestness, usually by a person who's never actually thrown or taken a punch. What it really means is that the topic or point of view or opinion under discussion is one that actually instills some kind of feeling on the part of the speaker, and he or she is unlikely to change their mind about it. That's it. They don't actually want to get into a rumble. Which is what's so grating about "I'll fight you on this" because, growing up, "I'll fight you" were three words that usually preceded an actual fight. Again, turn this around on the speaker and say, "Okay, there's a boxing gym down the road. Meet you in twenty minutes." 

 

3. "You do you." This is of a piece with "It is what it is," but salted with a little more insult. I suppose it's the modern equivalent of the old Southern expression, "Well, bless your heart" (which was never really meant as a blessing). Anyway, I don't like it.

 

4. "Follow your truth." I'm not going to get into metaphysics versus linguistics; I'm not going to hash through Arisotlean versus post-modern or emotivist worldviews. Here's the thing, though. For most people, "truth" carries an objective component to it. It's supposed to express an accepted point of (potentially) mutual understanding. But the animating sentiment underlying "Follow your truth" is idiosyncrasy. It's literally a call to celebrate a subjective ontology. Which is all well and good. But let's keep words expressing objective commonality apart from words of individual possession. Because "your truth" carries about as much meaning as "my universe." 

 

5. "It takes a village." This is a fine old African proverb that got turned into a book title that, in turn, became an overused piece of triteness to trot out whenever someone scolds someone else's kid. It's a lovely sentiment but, much like Orff's O Fortuna, it just got overplayed.

 

Okay, that's it for the rant. Feel free to add any I may have missed. I promise, I won't "fight you" over it.

 

- Matt

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Light Blogging

Haven't been as dutiful as I should on the blog-front. An out-of-town conference followed by an unexpected (but fortunately brief) illness set me back a bit.

 

But by way of a quick update: I've finally finished the self-edits to the second book of the Yonder & Far series. Tentatively entitled, The Tarot Tale, it's a fun story that melds the political intrigues of Yonder's realm with the political intrigues of the 1800 election.

 

Now that I've (finally) finished and sent that manuscript off, I've decided to return to a novel I started poking at about 10 years ago. It's more contemporary and set in Florida, but it's definitely got a weird/speculative vibe to it. It ran into a wall at about the 1/3 point, and over the years I kinda half-heartedly tried to slog it along, but it just wasn't writing. Now I think I've finally figured out a good middle act that gets around the blockage (by which I mean, I'm basically re-writing what I've started). But I'm excited to be working on it.

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My “Best of” List on Shepherd.com

There's a new website that curates "best of" lists for novels called Shepherd.com. Basically, authors create a top-5 list of books (best summer reads set in Iceland, best gothic mysteries with an animal sidekick, that kind of thing). My own contribution--best historical fantasy with a twist of myth and magic--is up now. The link is here. 

Matt's List of Best Historical Fantasy with a Twist of Myth and Magic

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Research & Writing

"Sure is a lot of stuff out there on the internets."

Because I write in a vein of historical fiction, I sometimes get asked about research. Usually, the question is along the line of how deep do you have to delve into historical research when you write a novel in this genre.

 

For me, the honest answer is "enough not to look dumb." 

 

There are a lot of historical fiction writers who could probably pass themselves off as historians. They comb through original sources, translate documents, do all the things real historians do. And sometimes that comes off great--Patrick O'Brian, for example, was absolutely fastidious when it came to the mechanics of navigating and fighting naval ships in the Age of Sail. But he was also a heck of a story-teller. Being the latter, to my mind, is more important than the former. Because I've also read a fair amount of historical fiction and fantasy where it's obvious the author relished his or her research a bit too much and felt compelled to machinate each and every granular detail of what they uncovered into their story. Those can be tedious books to read.

 

So for me, when I come to a plot point or a setting that relies on history, I Google around a bit to get the lay of the land. Then I try to find one or two credible authorities to provide the foundation for the background that I need. Those might be books. Sometimes they're academic papers (for Yonder & Far: The Lost Lock, I read through a UMass graduate student's thesis that, for some reason, was published online, to gain some understanding of African-American society in 1800 Massachusetts). Often times, these jaunts of research will yield an idea that I end up using (in the Lost Lock, I happened across a piece about the undeclared French War in the late 18th Century, which ended up getting a prominent feature in the book). But because I have a limited amount of time to invest between research and writing, I try to limit these forays. Again, I only want to get to the point where I can confidently say, "I don't think I'll look dumb if I write this." 

 

The Yonder & Far manuscript I just finished, tentatively entitled The Tarot Tale, has two areas that required me to hit the books. The first was the presidential election of 1800. For those who don't recall their high school history class, that was the one that was (mostly) between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. And if you think recent U.S. elections were heated, do a little dive into what went on in 1800! Now, this is a topic of incredible complexity (in particular because at the time, each of the States had different methods of choosing their presidential electors). There was no way I was ever going to master it--but I'm not writing a book of history. I'm writing a historical fantasy that has the election of 1800 as a background feature. So, in order not to luck dumb, I hit a couple of books: the late, great David McCullough's biography on John Adams and A Magnificent Catastrophe by Edward J. Larson. Between the two books, I gleaned enough to fill out a suitable setting for my characters to get into all sorts of adventures. 

 

The second area I needed to gain some insight into was Tarot reading. As the name of the title implies, Tarot features heavily in this story. Now, here was a topic I knew nothing about. And so I ended up taking a little bit of historical license with it. But for a good reason. Historically speaking, people have been using cards for divination for hundreds of years. But what most people recognize as Tarot reading really didn't have a significant following until after around 1910 with the publication of the Waite-Smith Tarot deck of cards (of which, the 10 of Wands is pictured above). There is a metric ton of information available online and in books on these "modern" cards--it didn't take me long to feel like I knew enough for my fortune-telling character to provide insightful readings. But there wasn't nearly as much out there on the older decks that were in use in 1800 (plus, to be honest, the cards weren't nearly so vibrant and dynamic as the Waite-Smith deck). In order to resonate more with readers, my story relies upon the Waite-Smith deck even though the events are set in 1800. But by taking a little time to learn this new topic, I hopefully will make up for that little license.

 

The balance between in depth historical research and story-telling is a balance different historical fiction writers strike in different places. What are your favorite areas of historical fiction and how do your favorite writers tackle history?

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YONDER & FAR: THE LOST LOCK

 

Boston 1798. Two fae gentlemen team up with a fortune-teller to catch a man who has stolen a magical lock of hair.

 

"Highly recommended." -- The Historical Fiction Company (5/5 stars)

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Stranger Things

I know I'm late to the party, but for the past couple of weeks, I've been working through the first two seasons of Stranger Things. Speaking as a child of the 80's--who played his share of D&D and rode a bike all over the place--let me just say this show hits a real sweet spot.

 

It's 1983, and a government lab in Hawkins, Indiana (something between a large, rural town, and a small suburb) has been engaging in covert experiments with telekinetic children. Why? Because their powers could be developed into a weapon against the Soviets--which is entirely plausible given the zeitgeist back then. But an especially "gifted" (but traumatized) young girl has unwittingly opened a hole into a dark, dangerous alternative reality. The "Upside Down," as this place is called, has all sorts of connections to our world.

 

Those connections, however, are mostly unpleasant. When ten-year-old Will Byers disappears into the Upside Down, his distraught single mother, his older brother, and his best friends and fellow D&D gamers, all go on the hunt to find him. There's deadly creatures, menacing fiends, and more 80's nostalgia than a New Wave Retro Night. High stakes, paranormal strangeness, government conspiracies, kids riding their bikes to save the day--Stranger Things is what you get when The Goonies meets The X-Files. It really is a delight to watch. 

 

A couple of small criticisms. The acting is a little bit uneven in the first season, but gets better as the show goes on. Also, the plot lines get machinated from time to time (mostly when the characters are getting moved about in clusters like chess pieces). But it's easy to gloss past those minor issues because the story is so fast-paced and foreboding. Highly recommended viewing for the Gen Xer who keeps a soft spot for malls, walkie-talkies, and classic role-playing games.

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The End (of the First of Many Drafts)

There is nothing more satisfying--or unnerving--than typing "THE END" at the conclusion of a 100k-word manuscript. Satisfying because it represents the culmination of months and months of grinding through a story. Unnerving because the next step is months more of grinding through self-editing the story. It's a tiresome slog that comes around (for me, at least) about once a year, much like taxes. But it's part of the process.

 

But I'll focus on the good news. I've just finished the rough first draft of the second book in my Yonder & Far series. Tentatively entitled, "The Tarot Tale," this installment picks up where "The Lost Lock" left off. Mr. Yonder and Captain Far are off on a new caper. Lots of action, lots of twists and turns, sprinkled with a good deal of weird U.S. history surrounding the election of 1800, and, as the title suggests, there's more than a bit of the occult woven throughout. It was a blast to write (much like the first). I'm very pleased with how it came out.

 

But first there are plot holes to fill, characters to trim, dialogue to tighten, arcs to round out... I'll hold off a month at least before I dive back into it (if you want to know why, take a listen to my interview on the Mythbehaving podcast). If all goes well, though, by the autumn, I should have something to present to my publisher. Hopefully, they'll like it as much as I do.

 

Have a safe and happy summer,

 

Matt

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Happy Birthday, America!

Baby Back Ribs a la Lucas

Happy Fourth of July, everyone! In a country which has the freedom of speech as its "first right," it's not suprising that the good ole' U.S. of A has generated a rich bounty of writing since its founding. So in the spirit of the Fourth, here are my four favorite American books, by Americans, for or about America:

 

 

1. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave: the ultimate story of overcoming and triumph, one of Douglass' autobiographies, and one of the best ever written. There are passages that are absolutely haunting, despite the span of years.

 

2. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin: Franklin is a fascinating figure. You would think the autobiography of this polymath would be stuffed full of sweeping ideas or profound witticisms. There's a little bit of that scattered throughout, but its focus is mostly on his personal aspirations, plans (he always had them--and he recounts them all, successes as well as failures), reflections, and even some grudges he held. Honestly, Douglass' and Franklin's autobiographies could stand as bookends of American writing.

 

3. John Adams, by David McCullough: sweeping, insightful, layered with detail (but not overtly academic), this is a masterfully done biography that sheds much light on an overshadowed man.

 

4. The poetry of Emily Dickinson: I've never cared for poetry, to be honest. But my late mother was an enormous fan of Dickinson (she even wrote a book about her poetry), and, perhaps for that reason, I have a soft spot for this death-obsessed New Englander. Intermixed with all the metaphysics she wrestles with are sweeping, natural reflections, New England sensibilities, and religion, all of which, I think, put her finger on the pulse of America in the mid Nineteenth Century.

 

What's some of your favorite American writing?

 

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Quote of the Day

 

"As are your repeated imaginations so will your mind be, for the soul is dyed by its imaginations."

 

 

- Marcus Aurelius

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