Wikipedia: even better than a children’s book (though much less reliable)

xkcd comic

Wikipedia is one of my favourite websites; the phenomenon in the above comic is one big reason why. Another is reading article talk pages that contain big, long arguments in which at least one of the parties is a long-winded, self-important, bigoted fool. But the biggest reason is that I find it tremendously useful for writing.

People always want to talk about how unreliable Wikipedia is as an academic resource, and of course they’re right. You shouldn’t trust a single fact you read on Wikipedia unless you can verify it somewhere reliable. (Though I’d say the same thing about most major news services.) But getting stuck on that misses the point.

When I was eleven or twelve and read all those books about being a writer, repeatedly the point was made about the consummate importance of research to give your work authenticity. And always, the recommendation was that when you’re researching a topic, you should start with a children’s book. They’re short, they’re easy to understand, they’re full of visuals, they don’t assume you already know something about the topic, and, critically, they’re comprehensive–if you’re researching, say, the Roman Empire, a thirty-page children’s book will cover its history and its society and its technology and its mythology. In short, it gives you an excellent framework onto which you can start hanging what you learn when you move onto more in-depth books about the specific subtopics you need to learn about in detail.

Only now, instead of children’s books, I’d recommend starting at Wikipedia. It’s a great place to get that initial overview, and even to start delving slightly deeper, to identify just what areas most interest you and that you’re going to start reading about somewhere trustworthy. So yes, everything you read on Wikipedia needs to be confirmed elsewhere; but that’s irrelevant, since it’s elsewhere that you’re going for all the important stuff, anyway.

I actually intended to write a post today about the other way I think Wikipedia is wonderfully useful for a writer–as a repository of writing so bad, it’s instructively bad. But having hit three hundred words already, I think I’ll leave that for another day.


The bookshop on my shelves

At Diane’s urging I’ve joined Goodreads, because apparently just being a member of LibraryThing isn’t sufficient. So over the past few days, I’ve been going through the books on my fiction shelves, rating the ones that I’ve read.

There are plenty of books on those shelves that I haven’t read, too. And more and more of them, as I went along, were books that I really want to read. So I’ve decided to get that done.

Below is the list of books I’ve marked as to-read on Goodreads. Some of them I’d already been planning on reading in the near future anyway; others have spent several years on the shelf. (Many have already been read by Lisa.)

These are, keep in mind, just from fiction, and just those that are currently on my bookshelves–I’d guess about forty per cent of my fiction is still in boxes in the shed outside, due to space constraints. And I haven’t started on my history books yet–I could well find a book or ten in there that I decide I’m way more desperate to get started on than any of the fiction.

Have you read any of these? Are you a fan of any of these authors? I’m wide open to suggestions. I plan to start in on the current list as soon as I’ve finished the book I’m reading right now, Castles of Steel, a really engaging history of naval warfare in the First World War.

Duchess of Aquitaine: A Novel of Eleanor by Margaret Ball (France, twelfth century)
The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley (Britain, Dark Ages)
The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold (fantasy)
The Courtesan: A Novel by Susan Carroll (Paris, sixteenth century)
The Hornet’s Nest: A Novel of the Revolutionary War by Jimmy Carter (Georgia, Revolutionary War)
Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier (Holland, seventeenth century)
The Virgin Blue by Tracy Chevalier (France, sixteenth and twentieth centuries)
Azincourt by Bernard Cornwell (France, Battle of Agincourt)
The Burning Land by Bernard Cornwell (England, ninth century)
A Crowning Mercy by Bernard Cornwell (England, English Civil War)
The Red Tent by Anita Diamant (Israel, Biblical times)
Hadrian’s Wall by William Dietrich (Roman Britain, fourth century)
The Gambler by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Germany, nineteenth century)
A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle (London, nineteenth century)
The Two Georges: The Novel of an Alternate America by Richard Dreyfuss and Harry Turtledove (alternate history, Revolutionary War POD)
The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant (Italy, sixteenth century)
Pride of Carthage by David Anthony Durham (Italy, Punic Wars)
The Last Wife of Henry VIII: A Novel by Carolly Erickson (England, sixteenth century)
The Secret Life of Josephine: Napoleon’s Bird of Paradise by Carolly Erickson (Revolutionary & Napoleonic France)
The Song of Hannah: A Novel by Eva Etzioni-Halevy (Israel, Biblical times)
Devil May Care by Sebastian Faulks (James Bond, 1960s)
A Sudden Country: A Novel by Karen Fisher (American frontier, nineteenth century)
Red Gold by Alan Furst (France, German Occupation)
The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin (Constantinople, nineteenth century)
The Boleyn Inheritance by Philippa Gregory (England, sixteenth century)
The Constant Princess by Philippa Gregory (England, sixteenth century)
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin (science fiction)
The Last Boleyn: A Novel by Karen Harper (England, sixteenth century)
Enigma by Robert Harris (Bletchley Park, England, Second World War)
The Ghost: A Novel by Robert Harris (Martha’s Vineyard, present day); apparently being adapted into a film starring Pierce Brosnan and Ewan MacGregor
The Dosadi Experiment by Frank Herbert (science fiction)
The Prisoner of Zenda and Rupert of Hentzau by Anthony Hope (Europe, nineteenth century)
Confessions of a Pagan Nun: A Novel by Kate Horsley (Ireland, sixth century)
The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian by Robert E. Howard (fantasy)
The Singer’s Crown by Elaine Isaak (fantasy)
The Borgia Bride: A Novel by Jeanne Kalogridis (Italy, sixteenth century)
The Burning Times by Jeanne Kalogridis (France, fourteenth century); Star Trek trivia: Jeanne Kalogridis is JM Dillard, author of The Lost Years and multiple Trek movie novelisations
Alibi by Joseph Kanon (Venice, 1946)
Ysabel by Guy Gavriel Kay (France, modern day)
Domino by Ross King (London and Venice, eighteenth century)
Through a Glass Darkly by Karleen Koen (England and France, eighteenth century)
Dark Angels by Karleen Koen (England, seventeenth century)
Now Face to Face by Karleen Koen (Virginia, eighteenth century)
Patrick: Son of Ireland by Stephen R. Lawhead (Ireland, fifth century)
The Coffee Trader by David Liss (Amsterdam, seventeenth century)
The Pegasus Secret by Gregg Loomis (France, modern day)
The Floating Book: A Novel of Venice by Michelle Lovric (Venice, fifteenth century)
The Dragonriders of Pern by Anne McCaffrey (science fiction)
Antony and Cleopatra by Colleen McCullough (Roman Empire, first century BC)
The Conquerors by André Malraux (Indochina, 1920s)
Percival Keene by Frederick Marryat (Royal Navy, Napoleonic Wars)
Vigil by Robert Masello (United States, modern day)
Mademoiselle Boleyn by Robin Maxwell (France, sixteenth century)
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell (Georgia, American Civil War and Reconstruction)
Sister Teresa by Barbara Mujica (Spain, sixteenth century)
The Brotherhood of the Holy Shroud by Julia Navarro (the Western World, many centuries)
Empire of Ashes: A Novel of Alexander the Great by Nicholas Nicastro (Eastern Mediterranean, fourth century BC)
The Icon by Neil Olson (Greece, German Occupation/New York, modern day)
My Name Is Red by Orhan Pamuk (Ottoman Empire, sixteenth century)
The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl (Boston, nineteenth century)
No Graves As Yet by Anne Perry (England, summer 1914)
Ten Thousand Lovers by Edeet Ravel (Israel, 1970s)
Return to the Chateau by Pauline Réage (France, 1960s)
The Book of Shadows by James Reese (France, nineteenth century)
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (Western Front, First World War)
Sword-Singer by Jennifer Roberson (fantasy)
Harem Girl: A Harem Girl’s Diary by M. Saalih (North Africa, twentieth century)
The Eagle’s Conquest by Simon Scarrow (Roman Britain, first century AD)
Duchess: A Novel of Sarah Churchill by Susan Holloway Scott (England, seventeenth century)
Rob Roy by Sir Walter Scott (Scotland, eighteenth century)
December 6: A Novel by Martin Cruz Smith (Tokyo, 1941)
The Fourth Queen: A Novel by Debbie Taylor (North Africa, eighteenth century)
The Sorority: Merilynn by Tamara Thorne (New England, modern day)
The Sorority: Eve by Tamara Thorne (New England, modern day)
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (Russia, Napoleonic Wars)
The Moon Riders by Theresa Tomlinson (the Troad, Homeric times)
In the Hand of Dante: A Novel by Nick Tosches (New York, modern day)
Trinity by Leon Uris (Ireland, nineteenth & twentieth centuries)
Jackaroo by Cynthia Voigt (fantasy)
King Kong by Edgar Wallace and Merriam Cooper (South Pacific & United States, 1930s)
The Zero: A Novel by Jess Walter (USA, modern day)
Farthing by Jo Walton (alternate history, Second World War POD)
Innocent Traitor: A Novel of Lady Jane Grey by Alison Weir (England, sixteenth century)
The Once and Future King by TH White (England, Middle Ages)
Shadowplay by Tad Williams (fantasy)


Those people who couldn’t get jobs at Barnes & Noble

Borders employees are claiming they are being pressured into signing a non-blogging contract.

Also, this post is from infoI Work at Borders, but it’s just as perfect for anyone who’s worked at a Barnes and Noble, too. I laughed.

Though in light of the article linked to at the top of this post, it’s fascinating what a huge majority of comments on the post are anonymous. You rarely see any anonymous commenting at either of LJ’s two B&N employee communities.


Double meanings

Honestly, I increasingly find social media suggestive. Or vaguely ominous.

Like when Instant Messenger says “X is available”, to which my first reaction is, no, she’s married.

Or the link on everyone’s Facebook page: “Send So-and-So a message”. Does clicking it take out a hit on their nephew?

Am I the only person who has these reactions?


Keeping in touch transatlantically

Paul and Lisa asleep on the couchIn order to create herself two additional days of holiday, Lisa will be working this weekend, which means that today–Memorial Day–was her last day off before we fly out. Thus we’re considering tomorrow the start of the home stretch in the run up to our holiday.

I don’t intend to vanish completely from the interwebs while we’re gone; I’ve set up several ways people can follow along on this holiday with me:

The phone. My phone’s been unlocked for international travel and should work abroad, though obviously I haven’t had an opportunity to test that yet. Lisa just got herself a new phone today, so hers hasn’t yet been unlocked, but we’re planning on getting that done.

That said, calls while we’re in England are 99 cents a minute. This includes voicemail–every time someone leaves us a voicemail, it costs us a buck. Texts, on the other hand, are free, so if you need to get in touch with us, we’d love it if it could be by text.

Twitter. What with texts being free, I plan to Twitter freely, and that will probably be the best way to follow me. Now, since I’ll be using Twitter just from my phone, I won’t be able see what anyone else has to say. I’ll also be able to send pictures to Twitpic but won’t be able to include captions.

Email will probably checked once every two to three days. Dropshots will be updated whenever I have both the opportunity and the inclination.

This blog. The limiting factor won’t be so much my access to the blog, as it will be having the time to write posts. So, whenever there’s an opportunity.

Am I forgetting anything?



The Last Light of the Sun by Guy Gavriel KayVia aqeldroma, an excellent article by Guy Gavriel Kay about the implications of the much greater engagement with their readers that authors experience in the Internet age.

And since that gives me the opportunity, I’m going to plug Guy Gavriel Kay, who’s one of my all-time favourite authors. Kay is Canadian, and in the 1970s he assisted Christopher Tolkien in editing the notes and papers that became The Silmarillion. His first four books, The Fionavar Tapestry, are a pretty straight Tolkien-esque fantasy cycle about a group of university students transported to another world.

But since then he’s moved away from the traditional sword-and-sorcery adventure model of fantasy to a style of storytelling that’s far more literary and character-focused; the worlds of his story have very little magic, but are steeped in culture and history. On occasion Kay can get a little too wrapped up in this notion of literary fantasy, and his work becomes a bit pretentious as a result (I’m looking at you, Lord of Emperors and The Last Light of the Sun); but far more often than that, his books are amongst the best fantasy the genre has ever produced, and I can’t recommend them highly enough.

I’d say the best entry point for a new reader would be A Song for Arbonne, a beautiful, melancholy novel about a gruff mercenary knight with a mysterious past and a travelling poetess, living in a society they both fear is doomed to an imminent end; its backdrop is a world inspired by the Albigensian Crusade in mediaeval France.

Another high point is The Lions of al-Rassan, set in a world heavily flavored by the Reconquista, the period of Spanish history when the Christian rump kingdoms in the north reconquered the peninsula from the Muslim kings who had ruled in the South for centuries. It follows a love triangle between the two greatest warriors of each side and the woman both men love, a healer from the Kindath, the outcast people despised by both of the peninsula’s societies.

Since then Kay has written several more books in the same world as Lions, but set hundreds of years away from that book and in farflung, distant lands–the Sarantine Mosaic (Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors) is set in a pseudo-Byzantium during the reign of Justinian, and The Last Light of the Sun looks at Britain in the time of Alfred the Great. Always the book’s settings and characters display a complexity and sophistication that belies all the cliches of which fantasy is so commonly guilty; their stories deal with the clash of religion, politics and ambition, and how those forces push and pull at the lives of human beings.

More often than not, they’re brilliant–they’re what fantasy should be.


Technologic considerations

William IIMe? Use my blog as a to-do list for our trip to England? Never.

There are three electronic devices I’m tied to–the phone, the iPod and the laptop.

The phone. A call to T-Mobile should get the phone enabled for international service. We’ll need to buy an adaptor for the charger, of course, but that’s easily taken care of. I wonder if my phone can charge through its USB cord.

I am curious what to do about Twitter, since (especially if I’ve got no laptop) I plan on twittering quite freely from the phone. Can I just use the normal American text number? Do I have to prepend the US international code to it? Do I use the UK number instead?

The iPod. If we don’t take the laptop, I’ll just buy a wall charger for the iPod. A US wall charger is $40 from the Apple Store, whereas an international wall charger–with adaptors for America, Britain, Europe and Australia–is just ₤23 (or around 32 bucks). What I’m actually most worried about with the iPod is keeping it charged for the initial trip. We have nine hours between liftoff from Reagan National and landing at Heathrow, then a two and a half hour train trip to Durham or Gateshead. I’d like to make pretty liberal use of the iPod during that trip, but it seems like potentially a tough haul for its battery.

Which brings us to the laptop. Vitally important for two purposes–the word processor and the internet. I assume that once we move down to Shenley and Hungerford, I’ll be able to use my uncle and aunt’s computers, respectively, but that won’t be an option our first week, at a hotel in the North East–which is exactly when I expect I’ll have the most time to fill on my own, with Lisa and Boy asleep in the hotel room. But I’m not sure if four days in the North East justify the hassle of bringing my laptop all the way with us to England. The closest internet cafe to the Gateshead Marriott is in the High Street, which is a twenty minute bus ride away.

Anyone have any thoughts on the laptop?


Wikipedia quote of the day

From the article on the Led Zeppelin song “Achilles Last Stand“:

The line, “Below the streets that steam and hiss/The devil is in his hole” refers to a Victorian tourist attraction the band visited whilst in Saint Mary, Jersey. Named “Devil’s Hole”, it featured a statue of a devil, in a hole.

I think what really makes the quote for me is the comma following devil.


A macrotweet

Edward the MartyrI’ve now been on Twitter for about three weeks, and I’m having a lot of fun. I feel like now I’ve been on long enough to form some firmer impressions than I had when I first started.

There’s a bit of nervousness when you first start on Twitter that you’re just being vain–or at least, there was for me. Why would anyone honestly want to know the number of bowls and wooden spoons we own keeps mysteriously dwindling? (Evidently they are, since that particular twitter* garnered a specific response.)

What helped me overcome that, though, was realising that those twitters that seem trivial and self-obsessed to me are exactly what I find interesting from the people I follow myself. Wil Wheaton actually summed it up perfectly in a post he wrote just yesterday: it’s not what are you doing right now, as is often claimed, but rather what’s on your mind right now? With the people I follow, I really do feel that “sense of connection” Twitter advertises, and it comes from them sharing both, yes, what they’re doing right now, and also what they’re thinking about right now. The whole thing takes on a stream-of-consciousness quality that really separates it out from things like Facebook.**

So my philosophy for what I twitter myself essentially became, would I find this interesting if someone I follow twittered this themselves? And overwhelmingly the answer has become, yes.

Consequent to that has come the liberating feeling of not worrying about whether my twitters are boring or too self-absorbed, because the only audience I’m worried about is me, as opposed to things like this blog, where I do give thought to how interesting a given post might be.***

Related to that is something else I think is critical to my enjoyment of Twitter–I don’t care about being followed at all. Right now I’m following eighteen Twitter users (or as I sometimes call them, Tweeple, derived, obviously, from the words Twitter and sheeple), who can be roughly sorted into two groups: celebrities and people I know, whether from real life or the Internet. For the most part my real-life/Internet friends follow me back, while the celebrities don’t.**** (Stephen Fry famously will follow anyone who asks, but I haven’t asked; I doubt there’s much point in becoming the latest of the more than thirty thousand people he follows.)

Now, I certainly appreciate my friends following me, but honestly, if one of them decided to drop me, I’d be okay with that–I assume they follow me for the same reason I follow everyone I follow, because I’m interested in what they have to say. So if my twitters aren’t something someone’s interested in, I’m not bothered by that. I do also have some followers who fall into that group of people who follow hundreds of others in the hopes of getting followed in return, but honestly, I just ignore them.***** [Is that too many asterisks?]

So. My most recent twitters can be found down the sidebar on the left side of the page. Feel free to follow along. Or not.


*We’re supposed to describe the act of using Twitter as tweeting, and the products of that act as tweets. I shall not be doing that.

**For whatever reason, the most common response I get when I try to explain Twitter to people is, “Oh, like Facebook.” I’m not quite sure why, though; beyond both falling under the “social networking” umbrella (do we still describe things as being Web 2.0?), I don’t really see much commonality between them myself. Both are fun, but both serve very different functions.

***Stunned though many of you might be to learn I worry about whether or not my posts are interesting before I post them.

****I’m not entirely sure if I should put Grayson in both groups. At any rate, I follow him not because of any celebrity he has–the only one of his news broadcasts I’ve ever seen was the very first, on the campus PBS station–but because he was my sugar daddy for a time in college.

*****I genuinely can’t see any point to that. If you’re a legitimate user, what’s the point of clogging up your feed with God only knows how many irrelevant twitters just to raise that number in the top right hand corner of the page? And if you’re not a legitimate user, why would you care?

And another

And the first draft of Inheritance:

Inheritance wordle


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