Saturday, 30 January 2010

Uncourteous To His Verbs

We went to see the Sherlock Holmes movie on Tuesday (and about time too, considering it was released on Boxing Day!). I realised as we came out of the cinema that I've never read the books, and decided I really ought to put that right, so off I went to Project Gutenberg to download myself a copy. I started with The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which comprises a dozen short adventures.

Allow me to quote for you a very short section from near the beginning of A Scandal In Bohemia (the first story in the book), wherein Holmes and Watson are discussing a mysterious note:
"The paper was made in Bohemia," I said.

"Precisely. And the man who wrote the note is a German. Do you note the peculiar construction of the sentence--'This account of you we have from all quarters received.' A Frenchman or Russian could not have written that. It is the German who is so uncourteous to his verbs. It only remains, therefore, to discover what is wanted by this German who writes upon Bohemian paper and prefers wearing a mask to showing his face. And here he comes, if I am not mistaken, to resolve all our doubts."
Ah! Imagine my delight to find that the esteemed Holmes shares my fascination with language - and not only language, but the errors made by learners of language, which is one of my all-time favourite topics in linguistics, and the area in which I conducted my first original research.

"But is he right?" my husband asked me.

Considering the way German word order works, it seemed quite reasonable to me that a German might make such a mistake. I turned to my standard reference for such matters (Swan & Smith's Learner English, in case you're ever in need of such a thing), just to check, and indeed under 'Word Order' there are several similar examples.

Of more interest to me, it also seems to be true that French- and Russian-speakers would be unlikely to make this particular error.

So I like Sherlock Holmes already... and am now imagining myself as a detective (Forensic linguistics is a real field, which I loved as an undergraduate, so it's not quite as unlikely as it sounds.)

Magnifying glass

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Submitting The Manuscript, or Why LaTeX Suddenly Makes Sense

I've been accused of being pretentious for using LaTeX for writing my novels - and I can sort of see why. After all, LaTeX makes perfect sense from the word 'go' if you're writing a thesis with complex equations (or even just loads of references), but it's a much less obvious decision to use it for fiction. I can't remember why I started doing it, but the more I look at submission guidelines for publishers, the more I'm so glad I did.

Firstly, a quick introduction for anyone who's unfamiliar with the concept. LaTeX is designed for typesetting - it's a markup language (like HTML), so you type mostly what you mean, but with little bits and pieces of extra information. For example, in HTML you type <i>text</i> to italicise, but in LaTeX you'd type \emph{text}.

I write in Celtx which allows me to have one tab for each chapter - but I ignore most of its wordprocessing powers and treat it like a text editor, into which I type my novel with LaTeX markup. To make a PDF, I can then just process the LaTeX.

So why am I telling you this? Why should you care about my strange, geeky habits?

Well, the more submissions guidelines I read, the more glad I become that I've chosen to do it this way. Seems that every publisher wants things their own way; gone are the days of 'double spaced, single sided' being the simple requirement. Oh no. Some specify 1" margins, some specify 1.5". Some specify how far you have to indent your paragraphs. Not to mention all the standard things like typeface, font size, etc.

This is where LaTeX comes into its own. You can set up a "stylesheet" which controls all these attributes and more. For academic journals and conferences (at least in the sciences) it's common for contributors to be supplied with the appropriate stylesheet so that all the articles look the same. You write your text just once, and change the styling with a stylesheet depending on where you want to submit it.

So I'm creating a set of stylesheets to meet publisher guidelines, meaning I don't have to completely reformat my document every time I want to send it to someone new. The text file stays constant, I'll just create a new PDF for each submission. And any time I want to submit a new manuscript to a given publisher in future, I'll be able to reuse the same stylesheet. Once I've got some good ones and made sure they're working properly, I'll also make them available for other writers to download, should anyone wish to make use of this for themselves.

In the meantime, at least I feel I have an answer to anyone who wonders why I write my novels in LaTeX.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

A Very Long Path

I don't write much about my PhD here.

I'm not quite sure why that is, because when I started this blog I thought it'd be full of interesting snippets from my academic life. Maybe it's just because research is, honestly, such a slow process. Exciting results just don't come along every day/week/month... I love my studies but there are more exciting things, day-to-day, in the rest of my life.

However, there's one little milestone I simply have to report on.

In most UK universities, it is (apparently) now standard to register all research students as MPhil candidates to start with, and then cause you to do some level of work to "earn" your place as a real PhD student.

On Thursday, I had that meeting. I'm now officially a PhD student. It probably shouldn't feel important - nothing has really changed - but it's nice to have that little stamp of approval. The stuff I've done so far has been okay, they really think I can turn this into a doctorate, etc.

It's just one more step along a very long path... but I'm thrilled to bits!

Snowy footpath

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Learning Embroidery

One of my "Before 30" goals is to learn embroidery. Although I used to do some cross-stitch (really easy kits!) as a child, I haven't done "proper" embroidery and I haven't done any needlework since my eyesight got worse.

If you want to be inspired by what's possible, go and check out Elizabeth Braun's beautiful work over at Sew In Love. Elizabeth is also a seriously lovely person who has had no end of patience for my newbie questions. She encouraged me to practise on smaller things, and on fabric I didn't care about, before starting a big project.

So a few days ago I went and bought myself a small embroidery hoop, dug out some scraps of fabric, and threaded a needle. The fabric had some flowers printed on, and I thought it might be fun to trace around one of them with stitches.


I finished up and showed it to my husband.

"That's that, then," he said. "You've learnt embroidery. Next?"

He was joking, of course, but it made me realise that I hadn't really defined that goal very well. Most of my other goals are measurable, specific things - despite being designed to encourage me to spend time on the things I enjoy doing. How will I know when I've "done" this? I'm only sure that I'm not there yet.

Monday, 18 January 2010

Vegetable Lasagna

At this time of year, I frequently feel the need to make dishes that are smothered in cheese... I think my body is trying its hardest to fatten me up for winter! And something like lasagna, that I can just layer up and stick in the oven, is the best kind of easy comfort food.

Vegetable lasagna

It's also, in my opinion, great fun to make - and you can amuse yourself thinking of new things to put in the layers. Just make sure you chop hard vegetables more finely than soft ones, and everything should cook at about the right rate.

Vegetable Lasagna
Serves 3/4

9 sheets of dried lasagna
300ml tomato passanda
400ml white sauce
100g cheddar cheese
2tbsp parmesan or similar hard cheese
1 small red onion
2 medium carrots
1 courgette
100g chestnut mushrooms
1/2 yellow pepper
1/2 green pepper
chilli & pepper to taste
  1. Preheat the oven to 180°C.

  2. Finely chop the onion, carrots, and peppers. Cut the courgettes and mushrooms into thick slices. Grate, or thinly slice, the cheddar.

  3. Put the onion and carrot into the base of your dish, spread half the passanda across, and season with pepper and chilli.

  4. Lay down a layer of lasagna (three sheets).

  5. Lay courgette slices on top of the lasagna, and spread half the white sauce across it. Sprinkle on about 1/3 of the cheddar.

  6. Put in another layer of lasagna.

  7. Spread out the mushrooms and peppers, spoon on the remaining passanda, and add a little more seasoning.

  8. Add the third (and final) layer of pasta.

  9. Spread the remaining white sauce evenly, and top with the remaining cheddar and parmesan.

  10. Bake for approximately an hour, until the pasta is soft and the cheese is bubbly.

Vegetable lasagna - in progress

Friday, 15 January 2010

A Short Story

Just over a year ago I told you that I'd written a short story, in response to a challenge from a local writing group. After blogging about it (and getting some helpful words from others in my writing group) I duly threw the PDF up on my website, and haven't looked at it since.

I'd like to dust it off and make it better (did I ever mention leaving things for a while before editing them? This is what I mean....), and probably a little longer since I'm no longer constrained by 1500 words. This has had a very quick once-over since I wrote it, and I'll be looking at it seriously over the next couple of weeks... if anyone has any thoughts on how it could be improved, please tell me. Short is not my strength; I need your help!

Suggestions for titles also encouraged - the current title was the prompt given by the writing group.

Cold Snap

Mart cursed as he lost his footing on the frozen ground for the fourth time that morning, and couldn't suppress a yelp of pain as his tailbone slammed into the ice.

"This is a fool's errand," he muttered as he got to his feet. "Remind me again why I agreed to this?"

"Because if we can't sort it out, Charan's just going to keep ordering more men to come and die up here," Anton replied somewhat brusquely. They'd had this conversation before, in many forms, and the ever-increasing cold wasn't improving either of their moods.

Mart sighed. "We've allied ourselves with an idiot."

They trudged on in silence, making their way gradually higher into the mountains. Their pace slowed as they reached a patch of fresh snow, sinking almost to the waist with every step.

"At least we're dressed for it," Anton said, bending to lace his knee-length boots more tightly against leaks. "Better than the advance party."

"Because that young upstart has no idea how to equip an army, how to look after his men, how to plan an expedition... In fact, I'm not convinced he could find a flagon in an ale-house."

"Maybe." In the privacy of the forest, far away form home, Anton could admit to thoughts he'd never voice in Conclave. "But he's got most of the archipelago behind him. Flying Rock holds a good enough position against haphazard marauders, but Charan's playing a different game. Best to get in on this at the beginning."

"Even if it means coming on this kind of halfwit mission." Mart had never learnt to dampen his cynicism even for show; he certainly wasn't about to moderate himself when he was alone with an old friend. "And what if it doesn't work - what then?"

"Charan keeps sending ill-equipped armies up here until he wipes out these people one by one, or-"

"You misunderstand," Mart interrupted. "I mean this whole 'Empire' undertaking. What if it fails?"

Anton shrugged. "Then I suppose we go back to how we were."

"Might be no bad thing." Mart longed for the good old days, like his teenage years when his only job was to load the catapult while Anton held it tensioned ready for the next shot. Easy days, none of this responsibility sitting heavy on his shoulders. He'd never asked for this.

They stopped for lunch as a new flurry of snowflakes began to drift down; they found a fallen tree to sit on, pulled their fox-fur cloaks tightly around their shoulders and shared out half of the day's allotted rations. They'd been walking for three days since the path had become too steep and too icy for horses; reports from the few survivors of previous missions suggested that they had another day and a half ahead of them before they reached whatever passed for civilisation in this part of the world. This time tomorrow they'd have to slow down and concentrate on moving quietly as they approached the settlement, trying to keep the element of surprise on their side as long as possible. The others had underestimated these wild mountain men, but Mart and Anton were among the finest of the battalion which guarded Flying Rock Island - and of Venncastle, the school being founded within the walls of the Keep. They were determined not to make such elementary mistakes.

They ate quickly, getting little enjoyment from their food; the rations were starting to feel monotonous. The dry bread and heavily salted meat made them thirsty, and they scooped up handfuls of snow to supplement the water from their flasks.

As they got to their feet the ground seemed to shift around them and a dozen blonde-haired, well-built men appeared as if from nowhere, dressed in cloaks of white fur which had camoflaged them against the snow. They formed a circle surrounding their captives, a loaded crossbow in every man's grip.

Mart reached instinctively for his knife, but Anton extended a hand to stop him just short of drawing the blade - a move which could well have been suicide.

"We mean you no harm," Anton said quickly, wondering how the mountain men had crept up on them so silently even through the snow and undergrowth of the forest. Skills like that could be valuable back home. "May I speak with your leader?"

One of the strangers leaned in towards his neighbour and whispered something, then turned back towards the others and snapped, "Bind them!"

Four men stepped out of formation and the others moved up to fill the gaps in the circle, spaced slightly more widely now but still presenting a wall which looked all but impenetrable. The four slung their bows across their backs, and brought out lengths of thick rope from beneath their cloaks.

Mart glanced at Anton, questioning. They were unlikely to survive a fight, but allowing themselves to be tied like slaves went against all his military instincts - better to face certain death than to surrender like this.

Anton had no trouble understanding the plea behind his old friend's meaningful look -- this was distasteful to him, too -- but responded with a very slight shake of his head. With darts they might manage to take down half of their captors before they were riddled with crossbow bolts, but no more, and there was no chance they'd survive the experience. Their deaths would serve no-one.

They allowed their wrists and ankles to be lashed tightly, ropes cutting into their skin, then one of the mountain men patted them down and removed their weapons before they were lifted and hauled up the hill like animal carcasses.

The party spent the night in a small cave which was obviously used as a regular staging post, complete with a supply of firewood and furs to sleep under. They stopped just as darkness fell, and moved off again at first light the next morning, Mart and Anton still being carried by their captors.

"If you free our feet, we can walk," Anton said.

"You'd only slow us down - you don't know how to move through the snow."

Anton was insulted by the suggestion that he'd slow the group down more by walking than by being a burden on one of their backs, but he said nothing. He didn't want to upset anyone, and although it was an uncomfortable way to be carried he could at least conserve his energy for later. He forced his muscles to relax, allowing himself to be moved as a dead weight.

They came to the village shortly after midday, and Mart and Anton were deposited unceremoniously in a small wooden cabin and left alone.

Mart shuffled himself into an awkward sitting position, leaning against the wall of the cabin. "What now?"

"Now we wait," Anton said. "I don't like this any more than you do, but if we're going to get through to these people we'll have to play it their way."

"Bound up like slaves," Mart muttered. "Not a whit of dignity left. How can we expect them to take us seriously?"

His monologue was interrupted by the entrance of another tall, blonde native.

"Why are you here?" the man asked. Like the others, he was carrying a crossbow; like the others, he held the bolt ready to fire. "Have we not made it clear that we wish no dealings with your so-called Empire?"

"We've come to negotiate," Anton said. "Charan's been stupid, sending armies up here as if he could conquer the mountains. But there are things we could teach one another, food supplies from the plains that could be brought up here, jobs you might enjoy down in the cities - a better quality of life for every one of your men."

"You think our lives lack quality?"

"The Empire holds variety you could only dream of," Anton said, getting into his stride now. "No-one would force you to move, but you'd have the choice, you'd have options that you don't have now."

The man loosed his bolt straight towards Anton's heart, reloaded his weapon, and turned his attention to Mart. "And you?"

Mart watched the blood seeping from his friend's chest. Where had all the smart talking got poor Anton?

"I didn't want to come," he said flatly. "I've told them enough times it's bloody madness - you can't force folks to agree when they don't. And for me, I'd have taken a man's death when your men popped up from the snow, not this humiliation. I don't care if you shoot me, but at least let me stand on my own two feet."

"You don't share your colleague's commitment to bring us into the Empire?"

"Not really. Wouldn't be part of it myself if there'd been a choice, but our island couldn't have withstood a lengthy campaign - they'd just have sieged us. Up here, though - you've the weather on your side, and the higher ground, and apparently a good set of watch-men. Why would you give in?"

The blonde man studied Mart for a long moment, then set down his bow and pulled out a knife.

"We're simple hunters here," he said. "We would use your knowledge in the fight to come. I can offer you my sanctuary, if you'll teach us your skills."

Mart nodded, and the man sliced the ropes that held his hands and feet. The Empire was nothing but folly anyway; when it fell under the weight of its own stupidity he could return to his fellows at the Keep of Flying Rock. For now, there were worse places to be.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

One And A Half Puffins

In 1925, Martin Coles Harman bought the island of Lundy.

In 1929, he designed and created a set of coins to be used on the island. The coins came in two denominations, One Puffin and Half Puffin, in honour of the adorable birds after which the island is named.

In 1930, the British courts convicted him of offences under the 1870 Coinage Act for illegally minting coins... he was given a nominal fine, and ordered to cease and desist.

Lundy coin

In 2010, I received one Puffin and one Half Puffin for my birthday - one of the most unique and surprising presents I've ever had, and very apt, considering how much I love puffins.

Lundy coin

With thanks to Wikipedia and other internet sources for providing me with some backstory to my present!

Saturday, 9 January 2010

Fox At Play

While I've been playing in the snow and/or wrapping up warm lately, my mum got published! I would love it if you took a minute to drop by her blog and congratulate her, she's an amazing woman (and you have her to thank for my company). Thanks.

It's not that unusual for us to have foxes in our garden, especially on a sunny day. But we had heavy snow (for this part of the world!) last week, and it was the first time I'd seen one of the foxes playing in the snow.

Fox in the snow

I'd just got in from a rather cold, five-times-as-long-as-usual journey home - but this sight through the front window cheered me up no end. He was clearly having the time of his life, leaping and burrowing through the snow.

Fox in the snow

Some of the time he looked like he was hunting something, but I don't think he actually was. I think he was just playing in the snow (something I fully appreciate).

Fox in the snow

We wondered if he might have been in a fight (having no fur above his hind legs) but he seemed perfectly happy in spite of his straggly appearance.

Fox in the snow

Despite his death-defying leaps, I didn't manage to get a good photo of him in mid-air. He was running much too fast from one end of the garden to the other, and I was stuck at first-floor level so as not to scare him away. This is the closest I came to an 'action' shot, a bit fuzzy, but at least you can see the sort of thing he was up to:

Fox in the snow

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Before I'm 30

Yeah, it's that time of year again. Happy Birthday to Rachel, etc, etc...


I've seen lots of interesting "life lists" on other people's blogs, and from time to time I wonder about creating my own, but I'd really struggle to enumerate everything I want to achieve in my life. Not least because I have a short attention span, and it's highly likely to change; my goals have never been static.

However, looking ahead to the next three years feels much more realistic - and leads to a conveniently round number.

This list is designed to be challenging; if everything was easy, it wouldn't be much fun. But I don't think I've included anything that's completely beyond the bounds of possibility, either. (I don't want to hear the word 'impossible' before 2013!)

So, without further ado, this is where I'm hoping to get to by the time I'm 30. Feel free to call me on it.

(6 Jan 2010)
Complete my PhDJust about to complete my 'transfer'
Publish in an academic journalNot started
Present at a conferenceOne unsuccessful submission in 2009
Install a woodburning stoveNot started
Redecorate the houseNot started
Install solar water heatingNot started
Build raised vegetable bedsNot started
Go to GreenlandBooked for summer 2010
Visit the southern hemisphereProbably New Zealand in 2011
Have visited 30 countriesCurrently 20
Writing & Speaking
Have a novel publishedAbout to start sending out queries (wish me luck!)
Finish the Charanthe seriesVolume 1 (of 3) complete
Finish writing one standalone novelOdd first-drafts lying around
Record and podcast an audiobookNot started
Have articles printed in 10 different publications1/10 so far
Average 5,000 hits a month on my blogCurrently ~1,500
Get a slot on the local radio stationTraining course starting soon
Take at least 5 public speaking engagementsNot started
Crafts & Skills
Hand-knit a jumper or cardigan for myselfNot started
Learn embroideryNot started
Learn 10 new juggling tricks
Not started
Use manual camera settings most of the timeCurrently rather erratic
Get my Guiding warrantAt the beginning of the process
Develop a board gameA few ideas floating around
Make all my own Christmas cardsAbout half were hand-made in 2009

Sunday, 3 January 2010


I'm not a fan of short days, but at least early winter sunsets make it much easier to get out there and take some photos. Here are a few shots from my trip to Cornwall last year.

Cannon in Porthleven


The Other Photographer

I think I need to learn something clever about my settings to get brighter colours, anyone have any tips?

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...