Miscellaneous thoughts about writing

This is going to be a stream-of-consciousness sort of post.  Over the past few weeks I’ve been heavily involved in editing;  planned and made a start on a brand-new series (so far including a huge amount of research and only a little writing);  and spent a few days with a scratched cornea, which made extended sessions in front of the computer an impossibility and gave me time to think about it all.  Therefore, you get the backwash of all those influences this morning.

I was struck by a tweet from writer Patrick Nathan, who said (and later replied to himself):

Patrick Nathan tweet

I agree with him, of course:  but the “rent” involved may not be pecuniary, or arrive at once.  A few examples:

  • I started my blog, Bayou Renaissance Man, in 2008 as a deliberate effort to force myself to produce output each day, find a body of readers who liked my work and would (hopefully) buy my books, and to make me broaden my intellectual boundaries by forcing me to seek out new and entertaining material.  Fourteen years later, there have been no direct cash rewards for that, but it’s certainly paid off in every one of those aspects.  Currently I’m averaging several thousand blog readers every day, and a not insignificant number of them also buy and read my books.  Having been hit hard by health issues over the past couple of years, I’ve not published any books during that period (which is why I included Patrick’s ironic reply to himself above – I know how he feels!)  Nevertheless, my loyal body of blog readers remains, and will help me get back into the market when I start publishing more books in a few months’ time.  That’s “rent” I can appreciate.
  • The publishing market is changing so quickly, almost on a day-to-day basis, that it’s hard to figure out what sort of “rent” you want to make.  Given our rabidly politically correct cultural environment in the USA, we may have to make a choice between earning money by being innocuously bland, flying below activists’ and extremists’ radar, or by deliberately courting and/or provoking controversy, so that one side of the political, cultural and social aisle will support us even if the other doesn’t.  Do we try to avoid “living in people’s heads”, or actively try to do so, even though they may not like us being in there?  Which pays better “rent”?
  • A growing number of writers are turning to new forms of social media like Substack or Locals to earn a living.  They’re deliberately staying away from occasional long works, instead publishing regular “columns” or articles or serial-style work in return for small monthly subscriptions from loyal fans.  So far, only a few have made it work for them;  but those that have are doing well.  Is this likely to become more of a feature in the writing market, in that you have to establish yourself well enough to switch from a sale-based “rent” to a subscription model?  Will the latter replace the former, or augment it?  So far, it’s anyone’s guess, but the success of Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited program (also subscription-based) makes me wonder.  It’s already making up half or more of some writers’ income on Amazon.com.  Might it and/or similar services take over from book sales almost entirely in future?  Might that fit better with the politically-correct “Great Reset” model of “you’ll own nothing and be happy about it“?  God forbid, say I! – but you never know…

All interesting points to ponder.

I’m working out the details of a new book series about which I’m quite excited.  I came to the idea the long way around, by starting a novel that combined elements of military history, steampunk, and sword & sorcery, all set in a world that allowed them to exist and flourish alongside each other.  I’ve got quite a long way with it (something like three-quarters finished), but as it grew, I began to think about a more historical and less “fantastic” approach.  That, in turn, morphed into the idea for a series (at least a trilogy, more like five or six books) with a central character set in a single conflict, based on actual historical events over a period of four or five years, but putting him and his unit into the shoes of those that actually fought.

As part of noodling on the subject, I’ve bought a number of reference books to get my frame of reference right.  (Let’s hear it for used book sellers – they often charge a tenth or less of the price of a new copy, particularly for older books that are long out of print.)  One of the most frustrating things to military (particularly combat) veterans is when authors who’ve never served (particularly in combat) write about such subjects.  They get so much wrong!!!  They may be able to read what others have said about combat, and apply that (and some do it rather well), but there’s an undeniable element of veracity when someone’s actually “been there and done that”.  It shines through their words, and fellow veterans can recognize and respond to it.  It’s visceral.

That also means, even if one’s a combat veteran, one has to position and express one’s fictional perspective in accordance with the period in which one is setting one’s story.  Anything else would be anachronistic, and be too much for other combat veterans (many of whom are surprisingly well-read and knowledgeable about such things) to “suspend disbelief”.  It would stick out like a sore thumb.

That reminded me of something the late, great George MacDonald Fraser said about his service in a Scottish regiment in Burma during World War II.  In his martial autobiography “Quartered Safe Out Here” (one of the finest enlisted memoirs to emerge from that war, which I highly recommend), he mentioned this incident while reading Shakespeare’s Henry V.

I was lying on my groundsheet … when Sergeant Hutton squatted down beside me.

“W’at ye readin’, then? W’at’s this? ’Enry Vee – bloody ‘ell, by William Shekspeer!” He gave me a withering look, and leafed over a page. “Enter Chorus. O for a muse of fire that wad . . . Fook me!” He riffled the pages. “Aye, weel, we’ll ’ev a look.” And such is the way of sergeants, he removed it without by-your-leave; that’s one that won’t be away long, I thought.

I was wrong. Three days later it had not been returned, and having exhausted Jerome and the magazines I was making do with the Fourteenth Army newspaper, SEAC, famous for its little cartoon character, Professor Flitt, a jungle infantryman who commented memorably on the passing scene. And I was reading a verse by the paper’s film critic … when Hutton loafed up and tossed Henry V down beside me and seated himself on the section grub-box. A silence followed, and I asked if he had liked it. He indicated the book.

“Was Shekspeer ivver in th’Army?” I said that most scholars thought not, but that there were blanks in his life, so it was possible that, like his friend Ben Jonson, he had served in the Low Countries, or even in Italy.

Hutton shook his head. “If ’e wesn’t in th’Army, Ah’ll stand tapping. ’E knaws too bloody much aboot it, man.”

This was fascinating. Hutton was a military hard case who had probably left school long before 14, and his speech and manner suggested that his normal and infrequent reading consisted of company orders and the sports headlines. But Shakespeare had talked to him across the centuries – admittedly on his own subject. I suggested hesitantly that the Bard might have picked up a good deal just from talking to military men; Hutton brushed the notion aside.

“Nivver! Ye knaw them three – Bates, an’ them, talkin’ afore the battle? Ye doan’t git that frae lissenin’ in pubs, son. Naw, ’e’s bin theer.” He gave me the hard, aggressive stare of the Cumbrian who is not to be contradicted. “That’s my opinion, any roads. An’ them oothers — the Frenchmen, the nawblemen, tryin’ to kid on that they couldn’t care less, w’en they’re shittin’ blue lights? Girraway! An’ the Constable tekkin’ the piss oot o’ watsisname —”

“The Dauphin.”

“Aye.” He shook his head in admiration. “Naw, ye’ve ’eerd it a’ afore – in different wurrds, like. Them fower officers, the Englishman an’ the Scotsman an’ the Irishman an’ the Welshman – Ah mean, ’e’s got their chat off, ’esn’t ’e? Ye could tell w’ich wez w’ich, widoot bein’ told. That Welsh booger!” He laughed aloud, a thing he rarely did. “Talk till the bloody coos coom yam, the Taffies!” He frowned. “Naw, Ah nivver rid owt be Shekspeer afore – Ah mean, ye ’ear the name, like . . .” He shrugged eloquently. “Mind, there’s times Ah doan’t knaw w’at th’ ’ell ’e’s talkin’ aboot —”

“You and me both,” I said, wondering uneasily if there were more passages obscure to me than there were to him. He sat for a moment and then misquoted (and I’m not sure that Shakespeare’s version is better):

“There’s nut many dies weel that dies in a battle. By Christ, ’e’s reet theer. It’s a good bit, that.” He got up. “Thanks for the lend on’t, Jock.”

You may think that’s far-fetched, but I recall having a very similar conversation (years before I’d even heard of George MacDonald Fraser) with a couple of buddies in the Angolan bush after a particularly hard day during South Africa’s Border War.  We all came to the same conclusion.  Shakespeare had “been there and done that”, and because he had – because he was writing from experience rather than third-hand description – his portrayal of soldiers and combat resonated with us, centuries later and half a world away from his home.

Well, I guess that’s it for this week.  Thanks for reading along with my stream of thought.  Let us hear your reactions in Comments.

8 comments

  1. I know you aren’t writing much but I’d still love to buy the last 2 Cochrane books in paperback. I have the first in paper but I will never buy the last 2 in E-book because mixing a series between E and paper doesn’t work. Truthfully I only buy .99 ebooks to see if I like the author and sometimes the Amazon teaser is enough for me to buy in paper.

  2. yeah, there are times when you can feel that a writer has either BTDT, or he’s been very very close with people that have…

  3. Ya’ know, I guess I never thought about it, (the Shakespeare piece) but you’re not wrong, he does write as if he had “seen the Elephant”.

    1. Likewise. Had not entered my head, but… now that you mention it….

      And it’s uncanny how boredom doth make scholarly any man. I wonder how many very bored soldiers’ eyes that book passed before…

      1. I went to grad school with a Marine vet who was reading Edmund Burke and others in the Sandbox. And had his books “borrowed” by others, despite (to spite?) his being an officer. As you say, boredom doth make scholars of us all. (OTOH, be careful. Look at what happened to Ignatius of Loyola!) 😉

  4. People often show amazing insight into things they have not personally seen. Many people from Communist countries were astounded at Orwell.

    1. Orwell had been in Communist-controlled territory, though, for some length of time, and had found his allies on the wrong end of a purge. That probably helped.

  5. That is why Shakespeare remains popular today with military folks. They pick up on those ‘indicators’, just like with Kipling after the loss of his son John, and what he went on to do with the commissions.

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