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...

Friday, June 26, 2015

Visualizing History

Anyone that knows me, knows I have an insidious interest in history.  It weaves in and out of my life, drives my entertainment choices, my reading and my writing.

I get genuinely excited about things like the recent 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, or some new bit of Elizabethan slang that I run across. I am more than capable of boring the Hell out of people at parties.

It drives me to wander cities I visit, in an effort to retrace history and to trace the steps of all the ghosts that permeate the place. I went to Paris in my teens on a school expedition. In our limited free time, while most of our group were shopping, I was meandering the back streets of the Latin Quarter in the pouring rain, slipping on cobbles and catching a tantalizing glimpse of a history that was, to an uncultured teenager, like a different world seen across a vast gulf of time and experience.

It's a strange addiction.

Anything that can help shed light on that distant, yet strangely close, echo of the past, tends to attract my attention.

Lately I've run across a number of visualizations that helped scale and interpret the past. I like visualizations. When used properly, they help take the often dry reams of data and leverage them into a story of an event, a tale worth telling.  Visualizations aren't just pretty graphs or data being arranging in interesting ways, the purpose of a good visualization is insight.

A strong visualization helps tell a story, in a memorable and thought-provoking way that hopefully let's you look at the world in a different light.

On occasion it leads into the dark.

Here's a couple of brilliant visualizations that help create a lasting and thoughtful look at a couple of historical events.

The first is Neil Halloran's The Fallen of World War II:

Halloran has pulled together a brilliant visualization of the casualties of Wold War 2 in what ends up being a riveting 18 minute video that provides better scale and coherence of the shape of the war and how it still resonates through the international structure today.  One look at the casualty figures for the USSR instantly clarifies the Russian's reactive defensive and somewhat xenophobic foreign policy.

The second notable visualization is Slate's The Atlantic Slave Trade in Two Minutes. This visualization compresses the information on the voyages cataloged in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database into an astonishing and devastating 2-minute look at 315 years and 20,000 ships worth of trafficking in human chattels. You can watch 3 centuries of horror flow across the map, select a dot, and find out just what that single pixel represented.  Here's an example:

Particularly telling is the fate of the cargo. The Sainte Agnes departed with 505 slaves aboard, but only arrived with only 331. 174 people vanished into the waters of the Atlantic.

On a somewhat more optimistic note, here is Hans Rosling's 200 Countries, 200 Years, tracing the development and growth of the world and world health over the last two centuries.

History is about understanding the present, far more so than it is about understanding the past.  You can't look at events happening today in a narrow perspective. Understanding the history that lies beneath can be bitter, but necessary, and you cannot speak to events in the world without having a hint as to the painful and often terrible steps we have taken to arrive at this juncture.

I think history is an addiction worth having and kudos to the designers, artists and thinkers that can bring it into this kind of thought-provoking life.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Story Competition - Vote Like the Wind!

I've posted BLACK DOG up on www.inkitt.com as an entry into their Fated Paradox mystery writing competition! It's a free read!

Take a look, have a read and if you like it, please give it a vote!

Votes need to be submitted by July 4, 2015 and the story needs to be in the top 10% of selections to qualify for the competition!

So go, fly my pretties and vote like the wind!

Monday, June 8, 2015

Mapping in the Imagination

Peering in maps for ports and piers and roads; 
And every object that might make me fear 
Misfortune to my ventures...
      - Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice

If you are looking to build your story setting, to develop your imaginary world, to evoke a sense of distance or scale, to add local colour or distant legends, whether it is winding byways or savage wilderness, it always helps to have a map.

A map can be an equally useful tool for both writer and reader.  For writers, it provides at least the bare bones of your setting because a map forces the writer to think through the concepts of space, time, population, density, geography, trade, economics, technology, transport, food, climate, culture - the thousand areas that will impact and anchor your characters, your storyline and your plot. These then become the fleshed out detailed world that lurks below your story, providing verve and verisimilitude. It helps deepen your characters - do they travel by foot, horse, cart, boat, or plane? Do they cross plains or deserts or mountains? Are they journeying across town - through a market or a shambles, past churches or trading houses? Is it thronged with crowds, or dark and sullenly empty with suspicion peering from every doorway? How does your character manage this journey? How do they change or develop? How can you show this to the reader and move your plot forward at the same time?

For readers, maps can clarify location, context, and distance. They can show the heroes journey and, in many cases, can become an iconic part of the author's work, adding depth and credibility to the world beyond just a bare-boned description of "distant mountains".  Tolkien's Middle-Earth and George R.R. Martin's Westeros would not be nearly as powerful a setting without a clear glimpse for the reader of the various lands and locales. Context builds detail and pulls the reader into the world you are creating.

Maps provide an anchor for a reader, locking the story into the world you are creating. They can be used to guide and direct, to suggest and evoke a much larger world than the one that your story inhabits. It can provide a backstory for your world that can suggest a much wider and grander world is hidden away, locked into unknown or unexplored regions.

This gives the author a broader sweep of the story to work with, and other areas to visit or re-visit for future plotlines or adventures.

For writers that work within the realm of the "real-world", maps can provide an excellent and highly efficient tool for story-telling, no matter what era you are trying to evoke. The tools available online give authors an unprecedented capability to accurately capture a place or location, without the necessity of a personal visit.  I can, through the wonders of Google Maps, pull up an accurate satellite map of Pitcairn Island (if I am writing about the mutineers of the Bounty), alongside photographs and (surprisingly) a Google "StreetView" walk-about. This unprecedented access to information about places, terrain, culture and locales is a massively useful tool for writers. Coupled with ever-broadening access to historical texts, first-person accounts, descriptions, travel guides, scholarly articles and other tools  etc. within the online realm, writers have never had more information at their fingertips than they do today.

By way of example, my current writing project Thieves Castle is set in Elizabethan London in 1576. Between Elizabethan contemporaries like John Stow (author of A Survey of London (1598), and other writers and maps like the Agas Map of London (c. 1560's), you can develop a clear picture of the geography, population and bustle of Elizabethan London, right down to the cacophonous cries of street vendors ("Hot codlings! Get your hot codlings!") and the stench of offal from the markets of Smithfield. As an added bonus, you can explore the Agas Map online via the University of Victoria's Map of Early & Modern London project.

Here's an excerpt of a description from Thieves Castle that basically owes itself to the cross-fertilization of maps & contemporary sources:

It began before dawn, with the harsh squeal of market-carts and drovers amputating the quiet dark.  The tramp of early foot traffic rose into a crescendo of sound as the sun edged above a yellow and grey horizon invisible to most city-dwellers.  With the light came a cacophony of trade and commerce, a cadence both familiar and discordant as the city woke to the new day.  Strident cries warred for attention, hawking baked apples, cabbages, fish, milk, bread and pie.  The distant percussive patina of metalwork and hammers was overlaid with the sounds of shouts and greetings, dogs barking and howling, pigs squealing and the bellow of tinkers and knife-sharpeners.

It was the bells that woke him.  They rose in a chorus, first St. Clements with a brassy clangor that sent birds skyward and silenced the yelping cries of the neighborhood dogs.  Then came St. Martins, lighter in pitch, a plangent tenor that hung a beat behind the nearby St. Clements like a thin sibling. The sound spread like ripples in a pond, the echo’s flitting down alleyways and thoroughfares, as more bells joined in the daily refrain. 

Now none of these tools replace the necessity of actually writing obviously.  Tolkien's description of the "cruel and ancient spires" and "far over the Misty Mountains cold / To dungeons deep and caverns old" in the song of the Dwarves help evoke a picture of the frozen and soaring savagery of ancient peaks, furrowed with dark secrets and hidden valleys.  How his characters then approach and pass through (or under in this case) this formidable barrier drives a key plot element and helps develop and illustrate the characters of the nascent Fellowship of the Ring.

Maps provide depth, context and structure to both the development of a plotline and the characters that inhabit it. They provide writers with guidance, direction and, often a helping hand in knowing what they might want to have their characters do and how they can do it.

Maps can give you direction, and direction can be a critical element in any character's or a writer's journey.

Remember, in the blank spaces on the maps and in the distant seas beyond the borders, here be dragons.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies, and Three Battles

Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies, and Three Battles by Bernard Cornwell
is Cornwell's first venture into non-fiction.

The author, best-known for his historical fiction (including the Sharpe series as well as the ongoing Saxon Chronicles, and numerous other excellent pieces of work), manages to combine the clarity of prose of the novelist with the myriad details of the historian, serving up a rousing, reader-friendly account of the famous battle that brought the Duke of Wellington head-to-head with the Emperor Napoleon in a quiet Belgium valley.

Cornwell wastes little time on background players, pulling together a quick overview of the circumstances that led to the battle, outlining Napoleon's flight from his exile in Elba, the rallying of the French forces, the seizure of Paris and the subsequent shock the Hundred Days sent through his enemies, to galvanize both the British and the Prussians. He wastes little time on the politics and focuses mainly on the circumstances and events that propelled Napoleon and his armies into Belgium, to hammer at the seam between the two allied opposing forces, the British under Wellington, and the Prussians under Blucher.

This then was the first battle of the title - Quatre Bras - which saw a piecemeal British and Dutch-German force hold (temporarily) a vital crossroads linking the two allied armies.  Cornwell demonstrates his considerable acumen in providing readers with an accurate, clear picture of why the crossroads mattered to the Prussian-British forces, and what were the vagaries of war that prevented Napoleon from seizing  a critical juncture in a timely fashion.

The second battle is the oft-overlooked Battle of Ligny, which saw the Prussian forces pushed back in a bloody vicious see-sawing fight. Cornwell pulls together the various tactical and strategic threads into a cohesive and understandable picture of the situation - the retreat of the Prussians, the opportunity it opened for Napoleon, and his failure to properly capitalize on it.

The final battle (and the meat of the book) was Waterloo.  Aficionados of military history will find
little new or substantially different in anything Cornwell has written. The Battle of Waterloo has been re-treaded so frequently that most of the controversies that tend to tie historians in knots are often of little consequence to the typical reader. Cornwell is uninterested in shedding any additional light on history, and is more focused on providing a concise, clear and well-documented account of all the major set-pieces made famous in the battle. He lays out a very good descriptive account of the battle, the players, circumstances and tactics utilized by both British and French troops, delves into the personalities of both Napoleon and Wellington and the many subsequent supporting players who played critical roles in what Wellington referred to as "a near run thing. The nearest run thing you ever saw in your life."

Where Cornwell excels is his focus on the experience of the battle through the eyes and position of the common soldier. He discusses the limited view most men had of the battlefield, and the subsequent distortions in accounts that are then magnified over time, politics and memory.

Overall Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies, and Three Battles is a rousing and gripping, if unsophisticated, look a the battle of Waterloo.  A critical, detailed, in-depth study of the battle and the history, it is not, but as a generalized account, it is excellent.  It is a solid, well-told look at a critical battle that re-shaped the history of Europe.

It is well worth a read, however if you are already reasonably versed on the battle, Cornwell's fictional account in Sharpe's Waterloo is, frankly, more fun to peruse. Sharpe's Waterloo covers the exact same ground, provides less historical overview but expansively more verve, excitement, sense and colour. Cornwell as a fiction writer is excellent at pulling you into the smoke, confusion and din of battle and Sharpe's Waterloo is one of his very best works and will leave you with a memorable page-turning account that hits all the same high-points as the dryer, more stoic non-fiction account.