sketchbook sundays

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frog on leaf ink drawing - Copy

Oak Toad on a Leaf
Micron 05 and 01 fine point pen

And that’s it for my drawing pad of 6×8 paper! Though I have a couple other blank sketchbooks waiting, I might get another 6×8 pad to have around. I like working in this size for several reasons. One, it takes less time to go from concept to completion than it does with a 9×12 drawing. Two, the dimensions make it easier to crop to a 5×7 aspect ratio for custom-printed greeting cards. Three, I can find mats and frames for a much more reasonable price at this size, compared to the relatively exorbitant cost of matting a 9×12 to an 11×14 frame. And four, since I draw all my mid-tone lines by hand without a ruler, it is less challenging to cover large areas of the drawing than it is in a 9×12. Just try drawing hundreds of straight lines across a 9×12 sheet of paper sometime, and you’ll see what I mean!

Like last week’s damselfly, this toad had as its photo reference one of my mother’s recent nature photographs. She’s taken some especially crisp and detailed photos of small animals lately, and it’s been fun using them as inspiration for opportunities to practice inking with fine point pens.

robert e. howard in his own words

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pigeons from hell cover

 
As a big fan of Dark Horse Comics’ recent adaptations of Conan, I hoped to find adventure in some of Robert E. Howard’s other stories. The Dark Horse series often featured on their letters pages, in the original single issues, short comic strips about Howard’s life taken from his memoirs. So, when I purchased this 1976 edition of Pigeons from Hell, finding a brief bio from Robert E. Howard himself made for an unexpected treat.

And yes, the deciding factor on choosing this book was the awesome dinosaur painting, by artist Jeff Jones, on the cover. Jones led an interesting life, at one point marrying comic book writer Louise Simonson and later living as a female under the name Jeffrey Catherine Jones. You can find a small sample of Jones’ 100+ book covers in this free online gallery. I tried to find a decent collection on Amazon to link for you, but they all seem to have their shortcomings. If you know a complete collection with high-quality reproductions, please leave a note in the comments section here.

All but one of the thirteen stories inside originally saw publication in Weird Tales from 1925 to 1938. Combining elements of horror, fantasy, and western genres, they all read as fairly straight-forward narratives. Howard provides some creepy moments but not really any shocking twists and turns – at least, not by today’s standards where movie audiences expect some kind of revelation to re-frame everything at the end of the story.

On the downside, this edition suffers from poor proofreading, with several typos per story. You might prefer to spend a couple more dollars than I did and get a more recent edition. And as an editor, I would have reduced the reliance on semi-colons and extended sentences with multiple clauses. In general, Howard’s prose is fast-moving and tight, but it could use a little editorial tune-up to hone its edge. If you can get beyond these minor quibbles, though, most of these stories make for a good, quick read and would be well-suited for adaptations as comic books.

Below, you can read the pages from the introduction, a letter from Robert E. Howard about his life and his thoughts on writing. The first paragraph is by Glenn Lord, an agent for Howard’s estate.

 
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library of female pirates 7

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library of female pirates logoOur seventh installment of The Library of Female Pirates concludes this week of piracy with the one book we would most highly recommend to anyone interested in female pirates or pirates in general: Under the Black Flag by David Cordingly. Cordingly devotes his fourth chapter to “Women Pirates and Pirates’ Women”. We will not present the complete chapter here because, unlike some of the authors of our older texts, Cordingly is still alive and deserves your support in purchasing this incredible work.

Cordingly’s chapter on female pirates incorporates all of the historical sources our series has shared with you so far, and goes even further. For example, he expands the body of knowledge on Mary Read and Anne Bonny by researching historical documents. This provides the reader with, among other things, this notice of their trial date, complete with antiquated English spellings.

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Cordingly also delves into the daily particulars of life which must have confronted females aboard the pirate ships, such as the problem of keeping their gender a secret when the only toilet aboard the ship was a large board, extending off the ship in plain view, with holes cut in it. Cordingly also notes the legendary female pirates were not the only women aboard these ships, and he reveals the conditions of wives and female captives. Finally, he puts the lives of female pirates into perspective by examining the lives of female sailors in general, favorably comparing their capabilities at sea with their male counterparts.

Ching Shih (which Cordingly spells Cheng) also appears in Under the Black Flag, receiving a far more historically knowledgeable treatment than Borges gave her in his fanciful Universal History of Iniquity. Cordingly mentions Alwilda here, essentially recounting Ellms’ brief version. However, Cordingly delves into the life of Grace O’Malley, a female pirate not covered in other texts in our series. Because she has not been given her due yet in this series, we present those pages here in their entirety.

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Trick Shots: A Fiction Writer’s Research Journey

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As a writer, you have probably heard the advice “write what you know” more times than you can count. And while this is one way to approach writing, it is not the only way. In fact, writing what you do not know can be even more rewarding, because it takes you on a learning journey. Author William Zinsser has called this Writing to Learn.

The recent series on this blog, The Library of Female Pirates, resulted from my need to learn about the history of piracy and famous female pirates for my fiction series. Ostensibly a science fiction narrative, my series also deals with several hundred years of history as a backdrop for the characters’ lives. Had I stuck to writing what I knew, I would have missed out on some truly amazing and inspiring histories.

Now, I do know a thing or two about billiards, having played on local 8-ball and 9-ball leagues for four or five years. But, my studies were limited to mastering shots and techniques, not history. So, when I came up with the idea for two of my lead character’s ancestors to transition from piracy to the world of billiards in the 1800s, my research took me into uncharted territory. It led me to discover François Minguad, the trick shot master credited with inventing the leather tip for billiards cues in the early 1800s.

Internet research led me to believe Mingaud came up with the idea while imprisoned in the Bastille in France. This was a fact shown not only on Wikipedia but in every single internet source I could find. I drafted a scene where my character’s great-grandmother met Mingaud in the Bastille and gave him the idea for the leather tip, an idea which would revolutionize the game by introducing “English,” the common name for the ability to make the cue ball spin in a desired direction and even transfer spin to an object ball.

So far, so good. Except, when I researched the Bastille to flesh out the narrative and get an idea of its interior for illustrations, I discovered something. The accounts of Mingaud’s imprisonment placed him in the Bastille from 1804–1807. However, all my research on the Bastille clearly showed the prison was destroyed from 1798–1799 in the French Revolution. How could Mingaud be imprisoned in a place which had been destroyed five years before his arrest?

English language publications have little to offer about Mingaud’s life. I found a reference to one of his published works, a manual of trick shots, in the back of Robert Byrne’s excellent Treasury of Trick Shots in Pool & Billiards. (His book Byrne’s New Standard Book of Pool & Billiards was always by my side when I was shooting on a league, and it helped transform me from a complete klutz into a reasonably capable player. Thank you, Mr Byrne!) Byrne’s citation helped me find a free PDF of that manual online: The Noble Game of Billiards. But, the only scholarly work on Mingaud I could track down was an entry in The Billiard Encyclopedia which carries a $99 price tag. 2014 was not a year for making purchases of that size. So, in desperation, I found Robert Byrne’s email address and sent him an inquiry.

Byrne graciously directed me to his friend Mike Shamos, a professor at Cornell University. I did not expect a busy professor to indulge my inquiry, but what did I have to lose by trying? Professor Shamos turned out to have the missing key to unlocking this mystery: a French archival website with a paragraph about Mingaud’s arrest and imprisonment. It turns out Mingaud was never imprisoned at the Bastille, but at a men’s prison named Bicêtre, a site which is now home to the Bicêtre Hospital. (Thank you, Professor Shamos! Shamos’ book The New Illustrated Encyclopedia of Billiards gives Mingaud a paragraph in the entry for “tip”, and a mention in “massé”.)

Needless to say, I revised my original Bastille scene to this location. But the journey was not yet over. I went back to the Wikipedia page that had the incorrect information about François Mingaud, previously sourced from numerous internet sites which promote this incorrect fact, and I updated it.

Some people denigrate Wikipedia because it often contains errors or uncited assertions. But if you have, like me, read thousands of non-fiction books in your life, you know many books contain factual errors. Wikipedia has the advantage that you can correct it. Yes, immature people can vandalize it, and if you are one of those people, please stop. You aren’t funny, and you are merely vandalizing our species’ greatest attempt to gather all human knowledge in one easily-accessible place.

While I agree with my university professors who refuse to accept Wikipedia as a research source, I often disagree with their criticisms. Wikipedia serves as an excellent starting point for any research project. It can give you a good overview of nearly any topic, from Einstein’s theory of special relativity to chili peppers. By clicking through the cited sources to examine and evaluate them, one can begin a research journey. Yes, you should go beyond Wikipedia and perform your own research in academic libraries and historical documents. But that does not invalidate Wikipedia as an excellent source of preliminary research.

And, if you discover errors in Wikipedia along that journey, you can update it and improve the citations. This point seems to be lost on most of the university professors in my graduate classes: if you know better than the largest encyclopedia ever created by humanity, then improve it! Make it better for the next person. It isn’t a print book we are stuck with. It is a source we can all contribute to. This is an amazing opportunity we never had when I was in high school in the twentieth century working with traditional encyclopedias and reference sources. If a book was wrong back then, it was just wrong forever, or until the publisher might decide to correct it in future editions.

Though the primary aim of a fiction writer may not be to improve the historical and factual knowledge of humanity, this may very well be the end result of writing what one does not know. Writing what you do not know takes you on a learning journey and improves your knowledge in related fields. It also gives you an opportunity to pass on that learning to others. And whether that field is eighteenth century pirates, nineteenth century billiards, twentieth century physics and genetics, or any other field your passions lead you to study, even the most escapist fiction can expand our horizons and improve our understanding of the world around us. Good luck on your journey!

library of female pirates 6

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library of female pirates logoOur sixth installment of The Library of Female Pirates returns to the pages of the 1996 hardcover edition of The Pirates by Charles Ellms. Here we receive a more complete account of the lives of Anne Bonny and Mary Read, apparently the account drawn on by Philip Gosse in The History of Piracy.

Though not as historically complete as the next book in our series, this may be our favorite telling of their tale. Ellms’ old-fashioned language gives us a sense of these long-gone days and creates an atmosphere of both shock and sympathy for these hard-fighting women who, if truth be told, appear no more or less cruel than their male counterparts. Ellms portrays them as capable of both passion and savagery, sailors one would rather fight beside than fight against. Anne receives a shorter chapter, but much of her life overlaps with Read’s chapter, where their meeting is revealed.

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library of female pirates 5

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library of female pirates logoOur fifth installment of The Library of Female Pirates features a brief account of the life of Alwilda from the pages of The Pirates by Charles Ellms. This 1996 hardcover edition presents material Ellms published anonymously as The Pirates Own Book, which is now available in many editions from Kindle to Audio Book.

Though Western readers tend to think of the buccaneers of the Caribbean when they think of pirates, Ellms includes Alwilda’s story in a chapter on the Danish and Norman pirates which came long before. Like Mary Read and Anne Bonny, Alwilda dressed as a man and went to sea, eventually leading a band of pirates. Ellms’ account reads like the stuff of legends, with Alwilda furiously battling a prince of Denmark whom her voyages had allowed her to escape becoming married to.

It is hard to say with certainty how accurate Ellms’ narratives are, as they make no attempt at citation, nor distinguishing historical record from anecdote. However, his charmingly old-fashioned language and sympathetic portrayal of female pirates does much to create a romantic yet savage vision of their life and times.

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library of female pirates 4

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library of female pirates logoOur fourth installment of The Library of Female Pirates returns to the pages of The History of Piracy by Philip Gosse for a more detailed account of Mary Read and Anne Bonny. Gosse ends this section with a brief verse he credits to the anonymous author of The Pirates’ Own Book. We now know the author was Charles Ellms, and the book was published anonymously in numerous editions as Ellms compiled material. We will explore the pages of a 1996 edition later in this series. Strangely enough, this fragment of verse did not make it into that edition, giving Gosse’s 1932 account a bit of uniqueness.

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