Elizabethan London

Elizabethan London
Tyburn was an infamous execution spot west of London, used since medieval times. The Tyburn "tree" - a unique, multi-person gallows - erected in 1571 became a popular public spectacle, drawing crowds of thousands.Tyburn Tree blog is less blood-thirsty but hopefully topical, interesting and informative, if slightly bent to my personal topics of interest - books, writing, history, technology, with a smattering of politics and dash of pop culture, science and the downright strange. So "take a ride to Tyburn" and see what happens...

Tuesday, July 24, 2012


From now on we live in a world where man has walked on the Moon. It's not a miracle; we just decided to go.
- Tom Hanks

This week was the forty-third anniversery of the Apollo 11 moon landing.  The moon landing, old news as it is treated today, was probably one of the most seminal dates in human history.

Crew of Apollo 11:
Commander Neil A Armstrong
Command Module Pilot Michael Collins
Lunar Module Pilot Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin Jr.

From July 20th 1969 until December 13, 1972, a dozen men walked on the moon.  It's stunning to think they did so using less computing power than a typical wireless phone can use.

And in the forty years since, no human has left orbit.

It could be seen as depressing, not having followed the path we originally trod but in those forty years, unmanned space exploration has exploded, reaching out to Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and beyond.  Voyager 1 will become the first man-made object to leave the solar system and venture into true interstellar space.

Last week NASA released an astonishing panoramic photo from Mars, taken by stitching together 817 images from the Mars Rover Opportunity, located at Endeavor Crater, Greeley Haven near Cape York.  Opportunity is currently on Day 3,022...ON MARS.  Keep repeating that fact in your head.

What's my point?  It's good to reach beyond your grasp, to outstretch your talents and chase the impossible and the improbable as far as you dare.

Passage to India

O sun and moon and all you stars ! Sirius and Jupiter !
Passage to you !

Passage, immediate passage ! the blood burns in my veins !
Away O soul ! hoist instantly the anchor !
Cut the hawsers -— haul out -— shake out every sail !
Have we not stood here like trees in the ground long enough ?
Have we not grovel’d here long enough, eating and drinking like mere brutes ?
Have we not darken’d and dazed ourselves with books long enough ?
Sail forth —- steer for the deep waters only,
Reckless, O soul, exploring, I with thee, and thou with me,
For we are bound where mariner has not yet dared to go,
And we will risk the ship, ourselves and all.

O my brave soul ! O farther farther sail !
O daring joy, but safe ! are they not all the seas of God ?
O farther, farther, farther sail !

- Walt Whitman

http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA15689 - All images courtesy of NASA.

Thursday, July 19, 2012


I was watching The Hangover 2 on the weekend and one piece of music they played during the show struck me.

The song was Billy Joel's Downeaster Alexa.  It seemed a strange song to encounter in The Hangover 2.  I assume they used it for atmosphere around transitioning the film from the US to Thailand but the story being told in Downeaster Alexa seemed somewhat at odds with the chaotic and lurid ramble of The Hangover.

What struck me was how effective songs are at storytelling.  Songs by their nature convey a great deal of their emotional content and mood via the music however like poetry, the lyrics need to convey the picture, character, setting and conflict in very tight, often restrictive formats.  The result is powerful, evocative writing, often pared down to the most basic and foundational elements.

Downeaster Alexa lays out story of trying to eke a living as a commercial fisherman on the rugged north-east coast of the United States.

It sets the high water mark for the loss of home, tradition, and livelihood - all driven down due to the cost of living, property, loss of fish, and restrictions.

The story culminates with the realization that it can't continue, that the life that was, is no longer.

I was a bayman like my father was before
Can't make a living as a bayman anymore
There ain't much future for a man who works the sea
But there ain't no island left for islanders like me

There are a number of songwriters who seem to double as story-tellers.  Some might claim that all songs are designed to communicate a specific story or an emotional state but I don't necessarily agree.  A strong storyline for a song implies something beyond just rhythm and repetition.  When I think of songs that evoke a strong story, I tend to think of songs with genuine nuanced character like Neil Young's Unknown Legend:

Somewhere on a desert highway
She rides a Harley-Davidson
Her long blonde hair
Flyin' in the wind

Robbie Robertson's song Somewhere Down the Crazy River pulls character and setting out of the first section with vivid spark and verve:

Yeah, I can see it now
The distant red neon shivered in the heat
I was feeling like a stranger in a strange land

Springsteen's Promised Land does the same, painting a picture of bleak economic hardships and loss, coupled with an ongoing flicker of hope.

On a rattlesnake speedway in the Utah desert
I pick up my money and head back into town

One element that all the artists cited seem to have in common is purposefulness.  Nothing in the songs appears to be filler or fluff, each lyrical element seems tightly held in exactitude and care.  Song lyrics require that description be pared down to elemental essentials.

As a writer, I suspect many of us could take similar lessons from lyricists in our editing and our prose.  Cutting the non-essential, paring down to the impactful elements that drive setting, character, situation and emotion.  Ernest Hemingway famously wrote a six word short story: 

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

It is said he called it his best work.  I suspect he would have made a good lyricist.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

This is Jake. 

He's here for no particular reason aside from the fact that he is irrepressibly cute.

Friday, July 6, 2012


Opening lines are among the trickiest elements for a writer to put forward.

A good opener sets the tone.  It sounds trite but capturing that opening tone within the space of a single line can be an exceptional challenge.  It is very easy to drive yourself cleanly into Bulwer-Lytton territory ("It was a dark and stormy night.") without even noticing.  I've done it several times and once it has been pointed out by the outside observer, it is often shockingly, glaringly obvious that you are now deep in the weeds.

So what makes a good opening?  The answers are as varied as there are openers however one thing tends to predominate - having an opening line with an intriguing, evocative or substantive hook.  The hook is what draws you in, drive the reader's attention and ideally pulls them into the next sentence...and the next one and so on.

"The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel." —William Gibson, Neuromancer

Gibson is an exceptional writer and in the space of a single sentence he manages to evoke a multitude of the key elements that inhabit his story - technology, a modernized bleak sense of emptiness, and a brush of the familiar, a future (television) that all readers can readily associate to and understand. 

There is one school of thought that lays claim, as per the Bulwer-Lytton example, that providing a descriptive sentence as an opener is not a good approach, that it falls under that "purple prose' category but I disagree.  I suspect a strong descriptive passage can and does work as an opener, if used effectively.  One example is Richard Adam's classic Watership Down.

"The primroses were over."

The sentence aptly presages the changing world that the characters face.

In developing The Jesuit Letter, I went through several variations of the opener.  Prior to adding the prologue as an opening chapter the opening was:

"The nudge in the ribs was short of a kick, but not by much"

This was a straightforward intro into the character and his situation, with the sentence meant to spark an interest as to the question of just why it was so close to being a kick, who was being almost kicked and why.

After adding in a Prologue to further the storyline, the opening was changed to:

"The April dawn was grey, damp and muddy and tinged with the mixed smell of early spring and winter’s rot. "

This was a nice descriptive sentence and keyed up two of the themes around growth and death but it failed to have a particularly strong hook and, shades of Bulwer Lytton, focused on the description rather then a hook.  After receiving some feedback from a helpful agent, I re-visited it and it was re-written.

"He hoped it had been a clean death." 

This provides a much stronger and more interesting hook and pulls the reader into wanting to determine why, who and how.

Whether it stays or is re-worked again, only time can tell.

The American Book Review has a list posted of the top 100 opening lines starting with "Call me Ishmael.." from Moby Dick and ending with The Red Badge of Courage.  I can't claim to an acquaintenance with many of the books on the list and whether you agree with the list or not is entirely subjective, but there are some great opening lines included. 

Here's a few openers (aside from the Gibson quote above which is also on the top 100 list) that have caught my eye over the years:

"He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad."  - Raphael Sabatini, Scaramouche 

“No one would have believed, in the last years of the nineteenth century, that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were being scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.”  - H. G. Wells, War of the Worlds 

"Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice." —Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

“Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray from the straight road and woke to find myself alone in a dark wood.” - Dante,  The Inferno

"In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit." - JRR Tolkien, The Hobbit

"Women, how they do haunt this tale." - Bernard Cornwell, Excaliber

Feel free to drop in any of your  thoughts, or your own favorite opening lines in the comments below.