Jim Aikin's Oblong Blob

Random Rambling & Questionable Commentary

Piece Piece

Posted by midiguru on November 30, 2015

I’m a lousy chess player. In spite (or perhaps because) of this, I’m fascinated by chess variants — games that alter the rules of chess in order to produce a new and less explored experience.

The website chessvariants.org gets less traffic than it did a decade ago, but it’s still a wonderful archive of ideas. Some of the proposed games on the site are brilliantly playable. Others are very silly, and are headed straight into the dustbin of eccentric creative thought.

The tricky bit is, if you want to play chess using a couple of extra pieces of your own devising, how will you do it? By pushing slips of paper around on the board? Ugh.

A year or two ago, I fired off an email to the House of Staunton, suggesting to them that there might be a market for some handsome chess pieces of unusual design. Afterward, I thought no more about it — but damned if they didn’t take the suggestion! Today, as a Christmas present to myself, I ordered their three new packages of white and black pieces, two of each to a package. And of course a more or less matching set of standard pieces, because the new plastic ones wouldn’t go well with my wooden set.

More packages, including some alternate pawns, are due out in 2016. Yay!

Once I have a set of cannons, leopards, elephants, hawks, chancellors, and archbishops, I’ll have three new challenges. First, I may want to draw up a nice-looking 8×10 board on a thick sheet of cardboard. Second, I could sure use an opponent or two. The town where I live doesn’t seem to have an active chess club.

Third, I’ll need some workable ideas about how the new pieces should move. There’s a fellow with a web page called Musketeer Chess who has movement rules for them, but I’m not uniformly happy with his choices. The chancellor (rook + knight) and archbishop (bishop + knight) are very standard pieces, but you can do all sorts of interesting things with the others. An elephant really ought to be able to push other pieces ahead of it when it moves, wouldn’t you think?

When the Staunton unicorn, spider, dragon, and fortress pieces appear, I’ll have to get them too. This is going to be fun.

Posted in chess, Uncategorized | Tagged: | 2 Comments »

In Fact It’s a Gas!

Posted by midiguru on November 12, 2015

The other day I started thinking it might be fun to write a steampunk novel. Steampunk, for those who are standing out on the sidewalk with their noses pressed against the glass, is a sub-genre of science fiction. The typical setting for steampunk is Victorian England, and typically a story is tricked out with fantastic clockwork gadgets and gigantic machinery. Electronics are strictly forbidden. There’s not much punk in steampunk, but there’s a lot of steam.

The collection of steampunk at my local library is spotty, but not too bad. I grabbed a stack of books and started doing a little market research. A persistent thread running through many of these books, I discovered, is the airship. It’s not hard to see why. The airship is charmingly retro, it’s impressively large, and it moves in a slow, dreamy, dignified way. The dirigible is a perfect icon for steampunk.

So I started doing a little research on lighter-than-air flying craft.

My curse as a writer is that I like things to make sense. I don’t care much for ideas that defy the laws of physics. I’ve written stories about elves, and unicorns, and ghosts, but those are just magic premises suitable for fantasy. Once you have a race of elves, they’re subject to the laws of physics just like everything else.

What I quickly discovered is that there’s a reason why, in our own world, blimps and dirigibles are not widely used as aircraft. They’re just not very practical.

For a lifting agent, you have three choices — hydrogen, helium, or hot air. Hydrogen provides the best lift, and it’s cheap and readily available, but it’s also very dangerous, because it’s highly flammable. Given the slightest provocation, a big bag of hydrogen has a tendency to burst into flame.

Helium is not quite as good a lifting agent, but it’s pretty good. It’s also scarce and expensive. Those party balloons you just bought at the store really ought to be illegal, because helium is useful stuff, and we have no way to manufacture any more. When the Earth’s supply of helium is gone, it’s gone.

Hot air is cheap and safe, but it’s a less efficient lifting agent. Because it’s less efficient, your gondola (the thing hanging under the gas bag) can’t carry as much. The gondola has to carry fuel for the burner that provides the hot air, of course. If you also want some kind of propeller, so as to control what direction you’re flying, that’s going to take fuel too. And then there’s the crew, the weight of the gondola itself, and the sandbags that you’re carrying for ballast so you can cut them loose if you need more altitude in a hurry. In the end, you won’t be able to carry much in the way of freight or passengers. Hot air balloons are fine for a spectacular ride at the state fair, but they’re just not a good method of transportation.

As a writer of steampunk, you’re faced with a few stark choices. You can ignore all this nitpicking — just go ahead and write about ironclad airships with mounted cannon, and trust that your readers will be so thrilled they won’t know or won’t care. You can invent a new type of safe hydrogen, though that violates the laws of physics. Or you can dispense with airships altogether and make do with steamships and railroad trains.

Personally, I lean toward option 3. The trouble is, readers of steampunk want to be thrilled. They want to discover visionary wonders of Victorian technology! A steampunk novel with no mechanical marvels is certainly possible in a literary sense, but it would be at a disadvantage in the rough-and-tumble book publishing market.

Still chewin’ on this dilemma. Not sure what I’ll end up with.

Posted in fiction, science fiction, writing | Tagged: , , | 5 Comments »

Theological Rant #739

Posted by midiguru on October 27, 2015

Sometimes I have the dubious pleasure of sitting in a room (in a church basement, not uncommonly, or what passes for a basement in sunny California) listening to a bunch of recovering alcoholics talk about how God is working in their lives. Sometimes the evening’s reading is drawn from a chapter euphemistically mis-named “We Agnostics,” in a certain large book.

I no longer care very much about anonymity, but to preserve appearances, I’m not going to mention the name of the book.

Tonight, while I was patiently listening, a couple of things occurred to me. First, if there were an incredibly cosmic, powerful, benign, sentient, aware being called “God,” why would that being care a fig whether you or I believed in Him or acknowledged His wonderfulness? What kind of insecure, penny-ante deity would actually place a shred of value on our belief? This notion makes no sense at all. If there is a God, we’re certainly entitled to hope that God is both secure enough emotionally and benign enough not to put the slightest importance on our beliefs.

The obvious conclusion is that when good things happen in our lives (doled out to us, presumably, by this benign spirit), our belief or lack of belief has nothing whatever to do with it. God does whatever God feels like. You’re just a pawn. If God sends you cancer or a terrible auto accident, or miraculously rescues you from same, it can have nothing to do with whether you believe or how you pray.

The corollary is an observation that’s certainly not original with me, but perhaps it’s worth repeating. If this “God” actually did care, for some reason, about having humans acknowledge Him as the ruler of the universe, how inept would He have to be to allow so many different religions to propagate themselves across the world? Their various views of this God fellow and what He wants and expects of us can’t all be right; logically, most of them must be wrong.

Yet this is the popular view of “God,” at least in the part of the world that I inhabit: a being who is both insecure, in that He hopes and expects to be explicitly acknowledged in exchange for bringing good things into our lives, and very inept about explaining Himself and His urgent admonitions with respect to human comportment.

The “We Agnostics” chapter (which should have been called “You Agnostics,” because it certainly wasn’t written by an agnostic) makes a number of bizarre and easily shredded assertions. One of my favorites is the sentence, “Either God is everything, or He is nothing.” This idea is deployed, of course, in the sincere hope of convincing you agnostics to fall on your knees and worship Him, that being (in the view of the authors of the book) the only means of distancing oneself from the temptation to indulge in strong drink. The subtext, which can easily be unpacked, is, “If you’re not a complete 100% dogmatic atheist, and we’re sure you’re not, you must believe in God.”

Unfortunately, the sentence as stated doesn’t even begin to cover the possibilities. There might, for instance, be many Gods, none of them supreme. That is, none of them “everything.” Some of them might be evil. There’s an interesting strain of religious thought in gnosticism that holds that the God who created the Earth and human beings is not the Eternal God. Clearly the God described in the Old Testament is a sadistic monster, and the gnostics seem at least dimly to have sensed that. If the Old Testament God is the one that created the Earth, we’re going to have to dig deeper to find a God that we’ll actually want to hang out with.

There’s lots of other ridiculous stuff in that chapter, but I’ll save it for another time.

Posted in religion | Leave a Comment »

…Because God Told Me To

Posted by midiguru on October 17, 2015

In the course of one of those pointless wrangles on Facebook, my interlocutor posted a link to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s page on the requirement that employers provide religious accommodation. This individual seems to be of the opinion that more accommodations are made in the workplace for Muslims than for Christians, though he offered no evidence, anecdotal or otherwise, to support this fairly silly idea.

On that page, the EEOC states, “A religious practice may be sincerely held by an individual even if newly adopted, not consistently observed, or different from the commonly followed tenets of the individual’s religion.” And then we get to this: “Social, political, or economic philosophies, or personal preferences, are not ‘religious’ beliefs under Title VII.”

In any legal sense, this is complete gibberish. It’s the law of the land, but it makes not a lick of sense. The first sentence is bad enough — I can eat meat on Monday and on Tuesday expect my employer to accommodate my sincerely held religious beliefs as a vegetarian. What evidence I would need to supply to prove that my sincere religious beliefs demand a vegetarian diet is not specified. Evidently, I don’t have to belong to a vegetarian church. I don’t even have to be a practicing vegetarian! So how is my employer to gauge whether my belief is “sincerely held”?

But that difficulty, vexing as it is, pales into insignificance beside the real problem. The real problem is this: A religion — any religion — is nothing BUT a social philosophy and personal preference. There is nothing of any substance in religion ASIDE from social philosophy and personal preference!

Naturally, believers don’t see it that way. They seem to have the idea that their religion creates some sort of special relationship between the individual believer and Thor, Poseidon, the Magic Unicorn of Zenda, or some other equally imaginary being. Unfortunately for them, the U.S. Constitution expressly prohibits any legal recognition of their belief in the Magic Unicorn of Zenda. Can’t go there. So if a law attempts to put a religion — any religion — in a special category that is DIFFERENT from a mere social philosophy or personal preference, then the law is in violation of the establishment clause of the Constitution. It’s an unconstitutional law.

As a result, employers CANNOT legally be required to provide any religious accommodation. Want some time off on Good Friday? Tough. Want to wear a headscarf? Too bad. That turban? Sorry, dude.

Now, I’m all for being polite to people whose personal styles are divergent. We should all try earnestly to make the kind of reasonable accommodations that are spelled out in Title VII. I happen to think the managers at Abercrombie & Fitch were being absolute dicks to try to fire that woman for wearing a headscarf. But as a legal matter, once they’ve set up a dress code for their employees, the fact that an employee happens to sincerely believe that the Magic Unicorn of Zenda wants her to wear her hair in a purple Mohawk should not be her manager’s problem, because there is NO legally cognizable difference between a Muslim headscarf and the purple Mohawk demanded by the Magic Unicorn.

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Way Too Twisty

Posted by midiguru on October 16, 2015

Q: What do a remote-controlled spider, an Ikea stepladder, a cigar-store wooden Indian, a hyperactive mummy, and a big bag of Purina Pterodactyl Chow have in common?

A: They’re all featured in my next text adventure game, “The Only Possible Prom Dress,” which may perhaps be finished and released someday.

I’ve been working on this game, off and on, for six years now. It’s a sequel to the very first game I wrote, “Not Just an Ordinary Ballerina,” which was released in 1999. The new game has the same setting, although portions of it have been remodeled. The player’s quest is rather similar, though little Samantha is now a teenager. Some of the puzzles echo, directly or indirectly, things that happened in “Ballerina,” but many of them are entirely different.

Having picked up “Prom Dress” a few days ago, I was surprised how much work I’ve already put into it. It’s more than half finished, which means I may only need three more months to get it ready for beta-testing. Many of the more complex puzzles are already coded, though a few remain on the drawing board. I’ve barely started on the other characters, however. As the story unfolds, you’ll encounter a dozen or so odd people, some of whom will help you along, some of whom you’ll have to outwit or outmaneuver in order to make progress.

“Prom Dress” is unabashedly a puzzle-fest. Its literary qualities, if any, are mostly accidental. (Well, okay, technically it is a love story of sorts, though neither of the lovers is entirely human.) Some of the puzzles are, I hope, quite easy. Others will require some head-scratching and teeth-gnashing. At least one is clear out in the read-the-author’s-mind category.

The game will contain a complete set of hints, so it’s not possible to get stuck. However, I’m planning to implement the scheme I first used in “Ballerina”: The more hints you use for a given puzzle, the fewer points you’ll get for solving it. If you read a given set of hints clear through to the end, you’ll be able to work the puzzle and move on with the story, but you’ll earn no points at all.

There are, I hasten to add, no mazes. (There were four mazes in “Ballerina,” because I simply didn’t know that players had gotten tired of them.) There are a couple of things that look like mazes, but they’re not.

As a teaser — and this may only entice you if you actually played “Ballerina” — here’s the intro of the new game:

The Story So Far…

For the past ten years you’ve managed to avoid shopping at Flogg & Grabby’s Stufftown. Not much of a hardship — the stores there are second-rate at best. The drive to the mall at Emerald Ridge is longer, but the merchandise is higher-quality and the ambiance far more modern and pleasant.

The real reason you stay away from Stufftown, though, isn’t because you don’t like the stores. No, it’s the memories of that weird Christmas Eve, ten years ago now, when you had to burgle every single store in the shopping center in order to finally get your hands on Sugar Toes Ballerina, the impossible-to-find fad doll of the decade. Your young daughter Samantha was sure Santa was going to leave Sugar Toes for her when he came down the chimney, and you couldn’t bear to disappoint little Sam on Christmas morning, not even if it meant wholesale breaking and entering.

So Stufftown brings back bittersweet memories. But this afternoon you’re going to have to face the memories. There’s no way to avoid it.

Samantha is seventeen now, and tonight is the big night she’s been waiting for for months: her senior prom at Harry S. Truman High School. Coincidentally, the prom this year is on Harry Truman’s actual birthday, May 8. Also coincidentally, today the Truman High School lacrosse team won the state championship.

Lacrosse is about the biggest thing in town, and when the team brought home the trophy on Harry Truman’s actual birthday, a parade was hurriedly organized. The parade is going on right now, on the other side of town, and just about everybody in town has gone off to cheer the team.

Now, about the prom dress. Sam’s little brother Stevie may or may not have spilled the black ink on it deliberately. He claims it was an accident, but it was a pretty unlikely one. You’re planning to sort that out with him later. The problem is, Sam’s date for the prom is the captain of the lacrosse team, and she really, really likes him, and this will be their first date, only now her prom dress is ruined, and the prom will be starting in about four hours.

The fashion boutique where she bought the dress happens to be in Stufftown, and on the phone they told you they had one more in stock exactly like it — the same size, same style, same color. But when you called, they were just closing up so the sales staff could rush off to watch the parade. The clerk you talked to was practically giddy about the lacrosse championship! You tried to explain to her that your daughter’s prom date is the captain of the lacrosse team, figuring that might convince her to keep the store open until you got there, but somehow you got disconnected, and when you called back all you got was the machine.

So now you’re on your way back to Stufftown, this time to get Sam a prom dress. You’re hoping maybe this new foray will be easier than what you went through ten years ago, but you have a dreadful premonition that it may turn out to be even harder.

Posted in Interactive Fiction | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Lay That Burden Down

Posted by midiguru on October 5, 2015

I’ve always had a vague interest in the Tarot. Over the past year or two it has blossomed into a definite interest. I’ve been buying Tarot decks and Tarot books.

I’m not sure where the interest comes from. As a card-carrying atheist, I’m certainly not keen to wallow in the ideas of mystical transcendence that are prevalent in the ruminations of people who write about Tarot. On the other hand, as I get older, it’s entirely possible that I’m harboring some sort of wish for the comforts of religion.

For someone who cordially detests conventional religion, the Tarot has some definite advantages. Primarily, it’s a do-it-yourself approach to spirituality. There’s no creed, no doctrine, no authority figures. Or rather, there have been quite a number of creeds, doctrines, and authority figures over the course of the past 200 years, and they all disagree with one another in various ways. This leaves the individual seeker entirely free to choose whatever ideas he or she finds most appealing.

The older ideas and images in the Tarot date back to Plato and the Greek, Roman, and Egyptian pantheons. This is comforting first because it’s all plainly symbolic, not real; and second because it makes free use of sources that are quite outside the ambit of today’s dominant religions.

As to whether there is actually any occult force at work when a Tarot spread is laid out — on that question, I’m agnostic. Of course the scientific view is quite clear. There are no such things as occult forces. That’s all a silly fantasy. On the other hand, when I ask the Tarot for guidance about a serious life question, shuffle the cards, and lay out a spread that amounts to a perfect diagram of my situation, it’s a bit of a stretch to think that the cards are no more intrinsically meaningful than a Rorschach inkblot, a meaningless jumble into which I’m projecting my own perceptions. So who knows?

But that’s not what I wanted to write about.

The problem I encounter, in reading about the Tarot, is that many of the writers, and many of the people who design Tarot decks, lean so heavily on Christian ideas. The man who commissioned the most famous Tarot deck, Arthur Edward Waite, was a lifelong Catholic, but he wasn’t the first to weld Christian ideas into the images on the cards. Those ideas have been there from the 15th century onward.

And I absolutely loathe Christianity. I despise it. The odor of sanctity is putrid and disgusting. Yet it’s all but inescapable when you delve into the Tarot. And not just Christianity. What stopped me dead last night was reading a description of the Wheel of Fortune card that refers to “the four letters of the Hebrew name of God.” Who the fuck cares about the Hebrew name of God?

If you want to learn the meanings of the Tarot cards, there’s no escaping this stuff. The meanings of the ten numbered cards in each suit depend heavily on the Qabalah, a Jewish mystical tradition. Without the Qabalah, the numbered cards just have pretty pictures on them.

I like the idea that someday the Tarot might become the foundation of a new, secular religion — a religion that is acknowledged to be based entirely on symbolism, not on any sort of objective fact, a religion in which everyone is free to have their own understandings of the symbols. I think people probably need religion. They would certainly be better off without the crop of religions that are currently prevalent, and the Tarot offers a nice possibility for something new.

If only we could get rid of the putrid Christian goop with which it’s infected.

Posted in religion, tarot | Tagged: | 3 Comments »

Something’s Happening Here (and You Don’t Know What It Is)

Posted by midiguru on September 25, 2015

Sooner or later, if you’re a musician and if you live long enough, you’ll start to notice that the music the kids are playing is confusing, ugly, and stupid. This happened, I’m sure, to musicians who had been active in 1895, when the big-band swing of 1935 was blazing. It definitely happened to jazz players who had honed their chops in the 1930s, when the Beatles and the Stones turned pop music around in the 1960s and 1970s.

Today it’s happening to me. Looking to hear some fresh sounds, I clicked over to the FL Studio website and had a listen to some of the mixes being produced today by musicians who are 40 years younger than me. I heard a relentless reliance on 4/4 time and drum tracks that bludgeon the listener. I heard music that has no melody, a monotonous bass line, and exactly two chords played over and over.

Okay, two-chord pop music is nothing new. Lou Reed was doing it in the ’70s, and so were a lot of other people. I didn’t like Lou Reed much at the time, and for that precise reason. But I trust my point is clear. I’m no longer in sync with the music of the young.

Me, I like chord progressions. I like odd time signatures. I like melodies and bass lines that move around. I’m classically trained, but that’s not a bad thing in itself. The trouble is, I’ve become an old fogey. Still wallowing contentedly in the hallowed styles of yesteryear.

The other day I launched Reason, came up with a bit that I liked, added a bass line and some drums, added a high pad sound … and suddenly I had an eight-bar synth pop riff straight out of 1983. As embarrassing as that is, I like the riff. It speaks to me in a way that these intense young people’s music doesn’t. Hell, when they rap I can’t even tell what they’re saying. Of course, it wasn’t always clear what Mick Jagger was saying either, and back before Mick there was “Louie, Louie,” a hit song in which, according to the prevailing legend, even the lead vocalist didn’t know what he was saying.

I do like the weird accent patterns of a good rap, though. I just wish they’d write a song that had some damn chords in it.

Where’s my rocking chair? Where did I put my bifocals? Did I take my pills yet today? Phooey.

Posted in music | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

More About Learning More

Posted by midiguru on September 25, 2015

I dropped out of college in the Sixties. Long story, and not likely to interest anybody, outside of a small circle of friends. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about returning to college to finally get a degree or two. Trying to find an option that actually makes sense turns out to be a bit of a treasure hunt.

Because I’m a musician, it’s natural to think majoring in music would be the right move. Specifically, as I’m an expert in synthesizers and music software, maybe a music degree with a specialization in electronic music.

I found a school back east that has a terrific program in that area — Bard College. I know I’d love being a student at Bard, but there are several not-so-delightful factors to weigh. First, it’s fearfully expensive. We’re talking $50,000 per year, and I’m still a lowly sophomore. That works out to about $6,000 per undergraduate class per semester. Ouch! Then there are the East Coast winters. I’m an old guy, and it’s not clear how well I would handle blizzards. On top of which, it’s a one-way ticket. If I sell my house in California, move back to upstate New York, and buy a house there, I’ll get enough cash out of the deal to pay the tuition — but I’ll be priced out of the California real estate market, so if the winters prove too severe for me, I’m stuck.

How about a music degree from a school near where I live? Well, there’s UC Berkeley. I’m pretty sure they would have to readmit me, because I left in good standing in 1968. But they have no undergraduate electronic music specialization — their music department is entirely performance-oriented. So I’d have to play cello in their orchestra. The orchestra rehearses two nights every week, for 2-1/2 hours a night, and get this — it’s a one-unit class. Five hours of rehearsal, plus all of the hours of practice needed to learn the parts, and you get one lousy unit of credit. Factor in the grotesque process of commuting from Livermore to Berkeley — can’t take BART, because it’s too long a walk uphill from the Berkeley BART station to the music building if you’re over 65 and carrying a cello. So I’d have to drive and deal with the inadequate parking facilities. Not a swell idea.

San Jose State has a nice electronic music curriculum, but here we hit another snag. I was a full-time student at Cal State East Bay for one quarter in 2004, but I’m still a sophomore, and SJ State is not currently accepting lower-division transfer students from the other state universities. I’d have to go back to CSEB for a semester or two and then apply for a transfer. The commute to CSEB is merely bad, not horrendous, and they have capacious parking lots! But no electronic music, of course. Parking at SJSU sucks, and it’s at least as long a commute as Berkeley — a full hour each way on the freeway, basically. For years. Makes me want to drop out, just thinking about it.

How about an online degree program, then? Getting an undergraduate music degree online is all but impossible, because of the performance requirements — a senior recital and all that. I did find one school, Valley City State in North Dakota, that offers an accredited online-only music degree. You take lessons and play in an ensemble in your local area and document it for their faculty to evaluate. But, whoops! They have no string faculty, so you can’t do their online degree if your major instrument is cello.

So maybe a degree in music is a bad idea. Maybe I should major in English, with an emphasis in writing fiction. No performance requirements to sweat over, no lugging a cello around on campus, this could work. Or how about an online degree in English? Could be a winner!

Judging by their own website, Southern New Hampshire University looks good. It’s accredited, affordable, and has an online-only fiction writing degree. But after a quick trip to Yelp, I had to cross SNHU off my list. Although it’s a non-profit, not a for-profit diploma mill like some other online schools, it appears their sales force is very aggressive, their teachers underpaid and forced to adhere to a cookie-cutter curriculum, and their responsiveness to administrative foul-ups deplorable. Some people seem to like SNHU, but it got a lot of one-star reviews.

Right now I’m thinking, maybe an English degree from UC. I could take BART to campus, the cost would be manageable, and I wouldn’t have to sell my house and move to a new town where I know nobody in order to enroll. The English Department seems to have a creative writing specialization, but the course offerings in fiction writing may be a bit skimpy. A cursory reading of the degree requirements suggests that I might have to take a couple of courses in either poetry (ugh) or script-writing (yawn).

Maybe I could troll the poetry-writing class by turning in some of my refrigerator magnet poems. Here’s my latest:

She will shake two easy dreams

and smile at every velvet hand.

In the rain you must trust a window,

but do not lust after the ferocious breeze;

the weak black picture is essential.

She will stop the clouds of time

and voice the power of true honey

as we blaze together,

lick the rhythms of yesterday,

and whisper about our feet.

Do you think they’d believe me if I told them that’s a love poem?

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When Bad Things Happen to Good Novels

Posted by midiguru on September 18, 2015

I’ve written two (unpublished) historical novels, one set in Chicago in 1885 and the other in Italy in the early days of the Roman Empire (in 59 A.D.). I love doing historical research … and I also love getting the details right. You can never get everything right, because historians don’t tend to serve up the kind of detail that a fiction writer needs. But at least the writer can strive not to get anything wrong.

Recently I sat down to do a little tidying up on my Rome novel, with the idea of probably self-publishing it and selling six or eight copies. It’s a murder mystery (as is the Chicago book), so naturally I need to know a lot about how the Roman legal system worked. I tracked down an expert in Roman law at the University of Michigan, and he suggested I read The Criminal Law in Ancient Rome by O. F. Robinson. I promptly bought a copy and started underlining salient passages.

My story has a love sub-plot. The widow of the murdered man is in the process of falling in love with a handsome young slave in her father’s household, and of course he ultimately solves the crime, thereby freeing her from the false accusation, so now nature can take its course.

The details of how they become romantically involved are a bit convoluted. The budding of the romance rests, oddly enough, on the nature of her murdered husband’s will, because the disposition of the estate depends on whether his widow is pregnant. She isn’t, but she decides to pretend to be, so now she needs a surreptitious surrogate father.

And this is where the fecal substance encounters the rotating air circulation device. Here is the key passage from Chapter 4 of Robinson’s book: “…all the slaves in the house at the time of the suspicious death were to be tortured in order to find out the murderer, to discover if anyone had incited him, and to make it possible to punish for their failure in their duty all those slaves who had not prevented the murder — for which they were all liable to be put to death…. Until this [the torturing] had been done the dead man’s will was not to be opened…. While the torture was technically interrogation, not punishment, the two concepts were not always clearly distinguished; the whole purpose of the law was to compel slaves to guard their owners both from members of the household and [from] outsiders at the risk of their own lives….” An addition to the law (probably enacted at about the time of my story) “extended the rule so that all the slaves of the surviving spouse would also be tortured.”

Oh, dear. My love sub-plot can’t get under way until after a dozen or so household slaves have been tortured. But I don’t want to write a description of slaves being whipped or subjected to thumbscrews or whatever the Romans liked to do. And I’m pretty sure my six or eight readers would find that chapter and its aftermath unpleasant, if not worse.

I knew that the slaves would be tortured if they were suspected of the murder, but this passage suggests that the torture  could and probably did happen even if they weren’t directly suspected — and in my story, one of them is suspected, because it’s a murder mystery, so I need suspects! But worse, the whole love sub-plot just got breached below the water line and sank to the bottom of the harbor. It can’t get under way until after the torture, because the torture has to happen before the victim’s will is unsealed and read.

I love historical research. I hate historical research.

This is the advantage of writing fantasy novels set on other worlds. Nobody can fact-check you. You can shape the story rather more easily, because you’re not constrained by reality.

Now if only the agent who has my fantasy novel sitting on her desk would get back to me….

Posted in fiction, writing | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »


Posted by midiguru on August 20, 2015

I love reading mysteries. Lately I’ve been on an Agatha Christie jag — bought many of the titles that were not already in my collection.

Her approach to plot is somewhat formulaic, though there are often surprising twists. (That’s part of the formula.) The murderer is usually the person you least suspect. Even if you try to guess based on knowing that’s what she’s going to do, you’ll still guess wrong.

The difficulty with this kind of writing is that in real life, most murders are not very interesting. In order to keep the reader guessing and the police baffled, the author generally has to come up with a truly far-fetched scenario. Sometimes the scenario, when the details are eventually revealed in the last five pages, makes sense. Often, however, it doesn’t withstand even casual scrutiny.

Crooked House is one of Christie’s best. The murderer is, as usual, the person you least suspect, but at least the murderer’s psychology and methods make sense.

On the other side of the coin, we have What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw. If you plan to read it, you should proceed no further. Spoilers follow.

Still here? Okay. Leaving aside, for the moment, the business of what Mrs. McGillicuddy saw — it was entirely coincidence, and not part of the murderer’s plans — here’s what the murderer thinks and does. He is estranged from his wife, who is Catholic and won’t divorce him. He wants to marry another woman, who is destined to inherit, sooner or later, a pile of money. In order to avoid bigamy, he decides to murder his wife. This is morally repugnant, but it’s an entirely sensible basis for a mystery plot.

There are any number of ways in which he could accomplish his nefarious ends. He could stab her and bury her in the basement. He could invite her for a weekend at the seaside and push her over a cliff. He could send her a box of poisoned chocolates. But no. He invites her on a short train trip (outward from London) in the direction of his home. He then strangles her on the train and tosses the body out of the railroad car. They’re traveling in a first-class no-corridor coach, so there’s no one to see what he has done.

Mrs. McGillicuddy, however, happens to be looking out the window of a train traveling on a parallel track at nearly the same speed, and she sees the murder committed. She duly reports the crime to the police … but no body is found. Her tale is dismissed by everyone except her friend Jane Marple.

But enough of that. We were talking about the murderer. He has cleverly tossed his wife’s body from the train at a point where it will roll down an embankment onto the country estate where his lady friend lives. He then calmly disembarks at the station and travels back (it is now late at night) to the country estate to dispose of the body. How does he do this? He can’t very well bury it, as there’s a gardener, who would certainly notice a fresh excavation. Ah, but there are quite a lot of ancient, run-down outbuildings on the estate, some of them filled with odd bits of junk. In one barn is a Roman sarcophagus that one of the ancestors brought home from Europe. So the murderer drags or carries the body of his deceased wife into the barn, deposits it in the sarcophagus, puts the heavy lid back on the sarcophagus, and goes home. Mission accomplished.

Of course, Miss Marple’s clever young assistant will eventually find the body. But the murderer has no expectation that that will happen at all — nor, if it is found, how soon that will happen. What if it’s found within days, and can be identified by circulating a photograph, or through fingerprints? (The story takes place in 1957. No DNA.) In that case, the murderer will have some explainin’ to do. Like, how did your wife’s body end up on your lady friend’s property? That’s not the kind of question for which a murderer is likely to have a pat answer.

In fact, his lady friend doesn’t know he has ever been married. If the body is discovered and identified, his romantic plans will go up the spout even if the police can’t prove he murdered her. Yes, this qualifies as poor planning. Nothing in the book suggests that he is impulsive or overly optimistic. He’s a country doctor, not a used car salesman.

Presumably, he intends the sarcophagus to be a permanent, undiscovered resting place for the corpse, though it’s not a very reliable one. He does, however, take precautionary steps. He concocts a fake trail of evidence suggesting that the murdered woman (whose corpse has not yet, at this point, been found, and as far as he knows may never be found) was somebody else entirely. This red herring, which of course fools the reader and also Miss Marple for many pages, directs suspicion at members of the family that owns the country estate. One of whom is his lady friend. But suspicion of what? As far as he knows, nobody even suspects that there has been a murder.

Already his actions are seeming very counter-productive. Rather than dispose of his wife in a sensible way, he has gone far out of his way to involve his lady friend … because, of course, if he didn’t do that, Mrs. Christie wouldn’t have a story to tell. But wait — it’s about to get worse. Much worse.

The provisions of the will and trust under which his lady friend will inherit are, as often happens in Christie’s novels, convoluted. Father (who is elderly and cantankerous) has the estate only in trust, from his father. When he dies, the estate will be divided among his six children, two of whom died years ago. One of the surviving children being, of course, the murderer’s lady friend. But the murderer is not content to expect that his wife-to-be will inherit one fourth of this handsome estate. He wants more. (Why does he want more? Don’t ask.) So he sets out to murder her brothers. The idea is, he has to murder the brothers first, because if they’re still alive when the father dies, the estate will be divided amongst them.

So what does he do? He puts arsenic in the cocktail shaker, of course — at a family dinner party where he is conveniently not present, a detail that I don’t think Christie ever clears up. Everybody gets sick, but only one of the brothers dies. Naturally, suspicion is thrown on the other members of the family. That’s Christie’s plot. But look at it from the murderer’s point of view: One of the people who will drink the poisoned cocktails is his lady friend! If she dies of the arsenic, his whole plan goes belly-up. And if the father is the one who dies, the murderer’s hope of increasing the size of his lady friend’s inheritance will go belly-up. He will have undermined his own grandiose hopes.

This is the fatal flaw in murder mystery plotting. In order to make a good mystery, you need the murderer to act like a total yutz.

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