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06 Jan 2009 The Cumulative Advantage

Skip over the headine about Justin Timberlake. This is a brilliant, meaty article about success (or non-success) in writing and other “cultural industries,” and how it’s a) unpredictable, no matter how much you know about your business, and b) highly dependent on social influence.

“The reason is that when people tend to like what other people like, differences in popularity are subject to what is called ‘cumulative advantage,’ or the ‘rich get richer’ effect. This means that if one object happens to be slightly more popular than another at just the right point, it will tend to become more popular still. As a result, even tiny, random fluctuations can blow up, generating potentially enormous long-run differences among even indistinguishable competitors — a phenomenon that is similar in some ways to the famous ‘butterfly effect’ from chaos theory.”

Hat tip to Shrinking Violet Promotions! And all the more reason to just write what you love best.

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05 Jan 2009 A Real Monday at Last

After two holiday weeks (and I do love the holidays, but still) of not knowing for certain what day it was at any given moment, I am now firmly anchored again. It’s Monday. As Pippa sings in Mr. Browning’s famous poem/play Pippa Passes, “God’s in his heaven—all’s right with the world.”

I think I need to put together a fantasy writers group of men, too. Robert Browning, of course. Algernon Charles Swinburne (swoon). E.F. Benson, author of the glorious Lucia books. Who else?

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03 Jan 2009 Writing Sages

Some people have fantasy football. I have a fantasy writers’ group—writing sages who have touched me deeply and who I look to as mentors and models. I’ve never met any of these women in the flesh, but I have met their hearts and minds through the words they put down on paper, and each one inspires me in a unique way. Here they are:

  • Dorothy Dunnett, the incomparable, creator of Francis Crawford of Lymond
  • Rumer Godden, whose luminous In This House of Brede is one of my favorite books of all time
  • Elizabeth Goudge, who wrote with shining grace of England past and present, the countryside, the houses, the families
  • Angela Thirkell, wry and dry and funny and pointed, who makes me long to be a duke’s prosaic daughter
  • Gladys Taber, countrywoman, animal lover, home cook and chronicler of wonderful Stillmeadow
  • Julian of Norwich, fourteenth-century English anchoress and mystic, visionary and eternal optimist

A list like this is revealing—clearly I am a romantic, a bit of an Anglophile, a devotée of history and a lover of nature. If you could choose from every writer since the beginning of time, who would be in your imaginary writers’ group?

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02 Jan 2009 The Tale of an Almond

I am working on intensifying the emotion in my story—giving it more fire and concentration and a more satisfying emotional resolution (there, see? I worked the word “resolution” into my post even though I’m not telling anybody my real resolutions, no sirreebob) in the end. It’s an interesting exercise. I’m finding that one way to show emotion is to show a contradiction between what a character says and what he does.

a story in every almondPerhaps he is shelling an almond at the end of a meal. A simple enough action. But he does it with the greatest of care, making sure the shell breaks into perfectly even pieces. While he does that, he is responding to another character’s conversation in an apparently casual manner. But the way he shells the almond is anything but casual, and the disconnect between what he is saying and what he is doing, to me at least, creates emotion. Conflict. Suspense. Yesterday at the party I was watching people, watching for disconnects. They can be astonishingly revealing.

Is there anything in the world more fascinating and—well, just plain fun—than writing stories? Well, possibly one or two things. Sometimes. Heh. But storytelling is definitely top-three.

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01 Jan 2009 Open House

On New Year’s Day we have an open house from noonish to whenever people stop dropping by. It always features mimosas, one of the Broadcasting Legend™’s justly famed baked hams, and plates and plates of home-baked cookies. People bring family members, children (from grown-up college students home on break to heart-melting six-month-old twins) and pets to play with Cressie and Boo. The men play with the traditional toy train (a toy train will have all adult males down on the floor in five seconds flat—try it). A good time is had by all.

Today was no exception.

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31 Dec 2008 Καλό Ποδαρικο!

First FootKalo Podariko, or Happy First-Foot!

The Broadcasting Legend™ occasionally teaches me snippets of Greek, and this is a traditional greeting for New Year’s Eve. As in other countries around the world (notably Scotland, which figures in my own heritage), the first person to set foot in one’s house in a new year can bring either good or bad luck.

The custom goes that immediately after the stroke of midnight, all the lights in the house are turned off and everyone goes outside. Then a particularly lucky person, often the youngest child, steps back into the house. Right foot first, please! All other family members then follow, also entering with the right foot, and all the lights are re-lighted for the new year.

May we all be blessed by good luck in 2009!

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30 Dec 2008 Retrospection

One of the things I always do at the end of December is re-read my daily personal journal for the year just past. It’s surprising and a little daunting to realize how much one forgets, even in the course of a year. The annual retrospective reading keeps me honest with myself.

I’ve been keeping a daily journal since 1983. Yes, there’s a lot of minutiae there—but I like to record the everyday things I do, well, every day. Walks, shopping lists, lunches, pleasures, griefs, dreams, success, failures. I can read a journal entry from any day at random and it brings back the shape and taste and experience of the day itself.

It’s remarkable and revealing to connect with my younger self, and I only wish I’d begun my journal earlier. Queen Victoria began keeping her famous diaries when she was thirteen! How I would love to be able to go back and read the truth about my own teenage years—I suspect it would not be anything like how I remember it today.

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29 Dec 2008 The Seed Catalog

burpeecatalogHere we are in the dark of winter, and on my desk I have the 2009 Burpee seed catalog. I am paging through gorgeous scarlet tomatoes (“slicers,” as my father used to call them), crisp green lettuce and cucumbers, berries and melons bursting with juice. And then there are the flowers—pansies with teddy-bear faces, dazzling marigolds, ruffled pink begonias and old-fashioned truly blue bachelor’s-buttons. More and more of my garden is being given over to herbs, too, partly for cooking, partly for scent, and partly just for pleasure—basil and dill, oregano and Italian flat-leaf parsley, lavender and peppermint and rosemary and rue.

I love reading the seed catalog in the middle of winter and dreaming of summer gardens. What better expression of faith could there be? As with all versions of scripture, however, the seed catalog can be contradictory: this year’s cover veggie is a “seedless” tomato, which one grows by purchasing (very expensive) seeds.

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27 Dec 2008 Silent in the Sanctuary

I much enjoyed Silent in the Grave, the first book in Deanna Raybourn’s Lady Julia Grey series of historical mysteries, and if anything Silent in the Sanctuary is even better. Suitably for the Christmas season, the book is set at Christmastime in 1887. It’s a version of the tried-and-true house-party murder, with Julia, her family, various friends, hangers-on and servants snowbound in the March family seat, an ancient Abbey.

The Marches are as March-Hare-esque as ever; “enquiry agent” Nicholas Brisbane is present but Julia is surprised (of course she conceals her true feelings) to find him engaged to a beguiling but empty-headed (or is she?) widow. Much mordant repartee ensues, as does, eventually, murder. The background effervesces with jewel thievery, ghosts, gypsies, kidnappings and family scandals. The murder might possibly have happened a bit earlier, but because I love the rich and deliciously-rendered detail of late-Victorian country life I’m happy to forgive Raybourn the slowish pace of the first half of the book.

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