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Monday, 23 July 2012

Two blocks of silence

I have now fallen silent for a week.  The reason is simple: I have been finishing off the manuscripts of two new books and pitching a third.

Now "finishing off" is relative, and "pitching" doesn't mean the product is finished.  Nothing is ever finished, and even when it is, I still come back and look again, and suffer from the writer's special Hell, an exquisitely refined version of esprit d'escalier, the great ideas that erupt too late.

Anyhow, one of these, the one I am pitching is my version of Crooked Mick of the Speewah. There are two of my tales visible on the Interweb in a sort of late beta form: Crooked Mick Builds a Railway and The Great Speewah Flood.  It doesn't fit into neat categories, and I may end up I may end up releasing it as an e-book, without the help of a publisher.

This is not the route I would usually follow, but this is a niche genre, tall tales and folk lore, common to many cultures, but told with an Australian bias.  The stories are highly polished, because they have been shared and discussed and in many cases, presented live, in character.  I know they work, but I can't get marketing people to see it.  So just for once, I may break one of my golden rules and self-publish.  We'll see.

The other two works are history.  Now I have a beef with history as it is served up to the young: it's a boring set of dates and name—or it's a regurgitation of some earlier book.

Well, I'm trying to provide some new material to derail the present discourse.  Case 1 is the gold rushes, where my line is a somewhat iconoclastic one: Edward Hammond Hargraves, far from discovering gold in Australia, entered into a conspiracy to foment a gold rush that the authorities couldn't stop.

That's him on the right. His co-conspirator was one Enoch Rudder, who later founded the town of Kempsey. He's there is the second shot, seen as a venerable old gent.

From there, I go to look at what creates a gold rush, and a lot of extra practical stuff, but the main thing is: lots of people found gold first, but these two knew how to manipulate people to get a gold rush started.

I have a brief for the prosecution: these two outfoxed the colonial authorities with a vengeance, and this is a Good Yarn.

That's what history should be about: good yarns that show you how things work.

Case 2, which I will talk about in a day or two if I have time, is called Curious Colonists, and it's about some of the less usual suspects, including a young man who preferred to hang over coming to Botany Bay, but time is running out before I go off to climb volcanoes and dive around coral and stuff.

We are leaving our son to mind the house (sorry, those burglars who were silly enough to think writers have money!) and heading off with two tablets loaded with e-books, one netbook and three hard copy mss to read through.

So this may, or may not, be the last blog for a couple of weeks.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Collecting engravings

Acacia sp.
Here in Australia, our "winter" is almost at an end, according to the flowers.  That said, the sun is low in the sky, even at noon, and that make this the ideal time to get out in the bush around Sydney, looking for Aboriginal rock engravings.

Today, my wife and I were taken by Matt Hunt to see some we didn't know, not far from home, within cooee of Oxford Falls and within earshot of radio-controlled model aircraft.

During the morning, I counted the following in flower:

  • 7 wattles (Acacia sp.)
    Acacia longifolia.
    Boronia sp.

  • 2 daisies,
  • 1 Hibbertia,
  • 1 Grevillea,
  • 2 flannel flowers (Actinotus sp.),
  • 1 Woollsia,
  • 1 Boronia,
  • Leucopogon,
  • Epacris species,
  • Eriostemon,
  • 1 pea, probably Hardenbergia,
  •  1 Banksia.

Boronia sp
 We also saw wallaby tracks, counted a dozen or so birds, and got to a rather wonderful collection of Aboriginal rock art.

Most of this has been almost completely untouched since white people arrived in 1788 with diseases which killed off most of the custodians and severed the spiritual and mythical links between the engravings and the culture that sustained them and was sustained by them.

Click on any of the engravings shots to see larger versions.  Note that no copyright
claim is made on these: they are all Creative Commons attribution shots, but note also
that larger (and unenhanced) originals are available on request for any good cause.
They have been there for 224 years, almost untouched, except when they are harmed by vandals or fools. Sadly, we have a few of those.
The figures are all placed on flat slabs of Triassic Hawkesbury sandstone, most of them on high ridges, and when I was young, I was taught that this was so women and uninitiated boys would not see them, or because it seemed closer to the spirits/gods.  It is more likely that the most suitable stone is that with a high silica content, which is more resistant, and so ends up staying where it was, up high.  I definitely know of sites which can be looked down on.

The figures include humans, food and other animals, and sometimes, spiritual beings—we think. Nobody can be sure, because proper knowledge was only passed down to young men when they were initiated, and the culture shock of white arrival broke those chains of knowledge. We are left guessing.

For a quarter of that time, since 1956, I have been visiting and sometimes finding these sites. It's my way of paying homage to the people we displaced.  I didn't do the wrong thing, but I have benefited from others who did wrong, and that wrong can never now be righted. We can, at least, recognise that wrong was done.
These are probably three eels.  Note that you will often see feet in the photos, as a way of getting a scale: you will never see those feet on any of the lines. We walk softly, respectfully and carefully, because these are fragile works of art, more than two centuries old.

The figure nearest the pool is one of a number which have been stupidly scratched by somebody who hadn't a clue, and who has often gone off the line. You can see something of the same effect below.

Note that male figures are usually identified as such by a rough depiction of a penis, though sometimes male figures are recognised by a line at the waist, representing the hair belt worn by am initiated man.  The eel with the bands (above and below) is a puzzle: is it wearing multiple hair belts?  It was probably important in passing on a teaching legend.
 This fish, for example, has been scratched over by an idiot: it isn't overly clear, but the line of the body cuts across the pectoral fin.

 In the shot below, look at the fin on the right. On the left, just in front of the pectoral fin (lower down the picture), notice how the scratcher has gone outside the line.

Below, several fish, something that may or may not be a bird, and some mundoës, which are supposed to be footprints showing a path to be followed.

This is a shark, something which those with zoological training can tell by looking at the tail, which is heterocercal: it has two unequal lobes. Sharks have negative buoyancy and no swim bladder, and they get lift in the water by the sculling action of the lower lobe, which the more rigid upper lobe drives the shark forward: that means that by angling its pectoral fins, the shark gets lift there as well.

The idiot who worked on this made a mess of the tail, and brought is closer to the homocercal tail of bony fish, as well as missing the line of the upper lobe, which is on the left in the photo.  The idiot also chopped off the fin on the shark's right.

If I am right, this is a wobbegong shark, but whatever it is, the head is seen from above, while the tail is seen from the side: the Australian Aborigines had different criteria on accuracy, and this depiction communicated better to its audience.

If you need to photograph engravings, use water, like this:

We went to a second nearby site which has unusual mundoës with toes.  Or toës.

Now the first rule is to get the sun as low in the sky as possible: winter is better than summer, early or late in the day is better than noon.  Then you need water: compare the shot above with the two below and see how splashing a bit of water around, with the right choice of angle, the detail comes out.

So if you go looking for engravings, take along a few spare litres of water.  After all, these things have been rained-on for more than two centuries now.

Reminder: no copyright claim is made on the shots you see here: they are all Creative Commons attribution pictures, but note also that larger (and unenhanced) originals are available on request for any good cause. The photographs seen here have all been digitally fiddled to improve the clarity.

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Leech-wrangling, a grand-daughter's mantis, and vacuumed trees.

Writing a book has its fun bits, mostly when I am planning the chapters. This is followed (for me, anyhow) by exhilarating bits like banging out the first draft. That is the equivalent of getting a block of marble and marking up the outlines on the block and doing a bit of rough-hewing.

Then the drudgery starts, polishing, tweaking, working through the logic and the sequences, double-checking the text, cleaning up sloppy wording, eliminating the bits that only got in because I was brimming over with bubbliness when I wrote that chapter—not to mention looking at the safety aspects that come into suggesting projects that involve sharp tools and live things that may bite sting or be plain antisocial.

If you write professionally, you can't afford to resent the needed time and trouble, because effort like that makes a book work. The same goes for the finicky double-checking of references, finding pictures, writing captions, proofing and the like.

Talking of proofing, I have a cunning trick, which is to convert the text into mp3 files using software that I bought quite cheaply, from TextAloud. You need to train the software to handle technical terms, and it has a few problems the words like lead and read which have more than one correct pronunciation. That's easy to deal with.  Once my file is created, I play them while reading the text. It's dull, but essential.

Equally, the changes recommended by editors, the cuts dictated by design needs, are essential parts of the process. (Secret hint: it's the great editors and excellent designers at the NLA that keep me loyal. With them at your back, getting a beautiful book is a doddle.)

Late in the piece, as the last of the less-fun bits pile in on me, I keep promising myself that next time, I will write fantasy, where I make the stuff up as I go along. No more fact-checking, no more emailing researchers to find out where they found that weird beetle next time, I tell myself.

Instead, I will write about a bunch of sheep who wear Viking hats so people will mistake them for mad cows and not eat them: no research needed there. The sheep are planning to "borrow" one of the Crown Jewels from the Tower of London: no research needed there, not if the sheep are time travellers who saw the Tower being built, so they know about a secret tunnel. Definitely no research needed there…

Not quite: you see, I had to set the date of the heist in a period before video-cameras, and chose 1951, on the second day of the Festival of Britain, a date was chosen because research told me the Beef-eaters would be tired that day, then one of the Tower ravens stowed away and joined the cast of characters, and that meant more research—and on it went.

Well, that could be my next book, but it might not be, because I'd miss out on a lot of fun. I used to be a science teacher, and my students always knew me as a fiddler who had some sort of gadget on the go: a home-made 4-metre gas discharge tube; a hovercraft powered by a superannuated vacuum cleaner; a kerosene-tin eucalyptus oil still; a water-powered mineral-sands concentrator; a slow-gain feedback loop using a tuning fork and an old telephone earpiece; or a culture of tiny crustaceans.

We all used to have fun with these things. The gadgets might get a brief mention in class, but to really get to take a close look and find out all about it, students needed to drop in at recess or lunch, or before school. A major part of my cunning plan was that many of the simpler ideas were portable—and they won hearts and minds.

Anybody who reads my books will probably realise that this leopard hasn't changed his spots, because the books offer simple gadgets anybody can make. And when people make and use them, they will learn. So I'm still out there, catching hearts and minds, but by itself, that wouldn't be enough reward. I need the adventure, the shared discovery and the amusing moments. I will offer one example of each.

You can't experiment with the sheep in Viking hats as you can with leeches. I was fortunate that my wife Chris is a brilliant leech magnet, so even on high, dry, Hawkesbury sandstone ridges, if we stood still for a minute, one or two lean and hungry leeches would appear, looping along like "inch-worms", hurrying to reach her shoe, aspiring to reach her ankle.

They never did. Leeches aren't very bright, and if you hold an open jar in their path, they will go right in. Then, when we get home and need to photograph them, my tame leech magnet comes along and puts her hand where it needs to be to draw them into the camera's range. I often put animals I was snapping on a dry platform in a large dish of water, but guess what? Leeches can swim. I learn, so I win!
After that, mantises were easy to find at home.
That's always the way, it seems!

The mantises were different. There had been none at home, but I found one when we visited our grandchildren, and being an opportunist, I grabbed it to photograph. And again being an opportunist, I shared my find with my grand-daughter, who was then 4. The upshot was that the mantis became her new pet and a couple of days later, we took some mantises from her garden to her kindy, and a whole class was made mantis-aware. I win, again!

The amusing item is different. I have to apologise to the lady who was walking her dog quietly along a bush track and came upon a ragged character who probably resembled Spike Milligan on a bad day, who was busily running a portable vacuum cleaner up and down a tree.

She probably ended up with a good tale to tell, but she fled before I could explain that I was merely validating a method I had read about for gathering very small animals, especially tardigrades, from a tree's bark. It was slightly embarrassing to me, and apparently quite alarming to her, but I got a great story to dine out on. So I guess I win again. Maybe she got a great story as well.

Pay attention please, you sheep in Viking hats: if you want my help to get you transferred onto the printed page, you must offer chances for me to have fun and to win. Otherwise, I think I'll go back to rummaging around in the undergrowth, looking for unexpected and curious life forms. I just know I can always have fun there!

The next entry will emerge from stuff I put together for a talk I gave at the State Library of New South Wales in their 'Scholarly Musings' series.  I am doing a lot of writing for younger readers at the moment, and I have been giving it quite a lot if thought. Talks like that, and the actual writing are the main reasons why I have been less active here.