Seven Great Nonfiction Books for Writers that Aren’t About Writing

Writing fiction – even writing fantasy – doesn’t mean you make everything up. Does your book have human characters? Does it have animals, plants, stars, diseases, art, wars, pretty much anything that exists in the real world? Then your book will be stronger if you know something about how those things really work. Research: luckily, it’s more fun than it sounds.

There are fabulous books out there that are specifically about writing. I especially like The Complete Guide to Writing Fantasy by Darin Park and Tom Dullemond. Books like that can boost your craft, for sure. But it’s also helpful – and incredibly fascinating – to read other nonfiction that touches on topics relevant to your work. (Bonus: these books make you more interesting to talk to at cocktail parties, and you can recommend them to friends who aren’t writers!) The following seven books have illuminated various topics for me, including . . .

1. FoodWhat the World Eats by Faith D’Aluisio and Peter Menzel
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This book’s creators visited dozens of countries all over the world to photograph families with all the food they eat in a week. There’s a profile of each family, plus a list of all the food they consume in an average week, including brand names and prices in US dollars. Plus, it has features on things like street food – scorpion on a stick, anyone?

2. Plants, and the Domestication ThereofThe Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan
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In a breezy, storytelling style, Pollan explores the histories of four plants: apples, tulips, marijuana, and the potato.

3. DiseasesSpillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen
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A zoonosis is a disease that crosses over from a nonhuman animal species to infect humans. This book plots the course of several outbreaks that started in animals before jumping to humans. The author also goes to adventurous lengths to meet and speak with people who are on the front lines of zoonosis research.

4. AnimalsMammals by Juliet Clutton-Brock
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Come for the cool photos, stay for the weird facts. This Smithsonian Handbook might just introduce you to your favorite mammal that you’d never heard of. This was where I first learned about binturongs, and life has never been the same.

5. WarThe Hutchinson Atlas of Battle Plans: Before and After by John Pimlott
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Clear without being condescending, this book explains significant historical battles and shows the movement of troops using before-and-after maps (hence the title). It profiles battles from all over the world and all through history, each one chosen to emphasize a specific factor, e.g. “smart leadership” or “underestimating the enemy.”

6. Nineteenth-Century EnglandWhat Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew by Daniel Pool
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Theoretically, this book is intended as a desk reference for people who like to read Victorian fiction. It’s a funny, highly readable explanation of the nitty-gritty details of life in England in the 1800s, from the etiquette of fox hunts to the treatment of servants to the currency system.

7. More Things About the Nineteenth Century, and Not Just in EnglandEveryday Life in the 1800s by Marc McCutcheon
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Does this book overlap some with the last one? Yes. Is it still worth reading, if you’re interested in the time period? Absolutely. Interesting and clever, this book has tons of great citations from period documents.

I’m always looking for more great nonfiction books, whether they’re relevant to my writing or not. Any recommendations?

Let There Be Light!

Two more of my No Flying No Tights reviews have just gone live on the site, and one is about a volume of Pokémon manga! (Specifically, Pokémon the Movie: Hoopa and the Clash of Ages.) Topical! Sort of! The other is about the first volume of a bright, poppy new magical-girl series called Zodiac Starforce.

(I’ve got a lot of reviews up on No Flying No Tights by now! If you’re interested, you can see them all here.)

I’ve spent some time lately thinking about an often-overlooked little element of description: lighting. In contemporary realism, lighting can generally be ignored unless it’s unusual. If you don’t describe it, readers will assume that it’s whatever lighting is typical for the situation in their experience: florescent lights in a classroom, for example. Which is generally fine.

But when you get into fantasy (or historical fiction set in a time before electricity is common), you start to have to ask yourself, “How can my characters see right now?”

If they’re outside and it’s daytime, the answer is pretty obvious. And if they’re outside at night, writers usually remember that their characters need a torch or a lantern or a helpfully bright moon in order to see. But what about indoors? Windows might be small and/or scarce, depending on your setting – is glass expensive? – and all the windows in the world won’t provide much light if it’s overcast or, you know, night. Besides, most buildings of any size have at least some interior rooms with no windows at all. What do your characters use to see?

photo credit: Macedonia-Sveti Pantelejmon Monastry-Candles and wishes!! via photopin (license)

Popular choices in fantasy include lanterns, chandeliers, torches, braziers, magical light sources, and the evergreen favorite, candles. You also get a certain amount of light from fireplaces, though they won’t light a room much on their own. Each of these has its own pros and cons to consider. (Bonus: these can provide opportunities to further develop your characters and your world!) Among them:

  • Most of these items – and their fuel, if applicable – cost money. Can your character afford a lantern? Is she conservative about using candles?
  • Candles can be smoky and, depending on what they’re made of, smelly. A poor character may be stuck with stinky tallow candles, while a rich one may have perfumed beeswax candles. Similarly, other flame-based light sources can produce scent, smoky or otherwise. You can throw herbs into a fireplace or brazier.
  • The angle of the light will be different depending on how the source is held or mounted. A light source held low will throw shadows differently from one held high.
  • Most of these cast warm, yellowish light. (Magical light sources, of course, being a possible exception.) The color of the lighting can really set the mood for a scene. Firelight might make a room seem cozy . . . or hellish. It all depends on how you describe it.
  • How much light is cast? A single candle may not illuminate a whole room. Giving the character only a limited pool of light in which she can see shrinks the focus and forces her to discover one part of the room at a time.
  • Some of these light sources are unreliable. Candles sputter and go out. Oil lanterns run out of fuel. Magical light sources may require energy to maintain.
  • The risk of fire spreading is real. Keep it in mind.

Historically, people who could afford it often maximized their light by including mirrors and other reflective surfaces in interior rooms. A candle next to a mirror is MUCH brighter than a candle by itself.

I don’t write science fiction, but there must be a whole other set of possibilities and considerations there. What’s the lighting like on a spaceship? What do aliens use for light on their home world?

A Picture is Worth SOME Number of Words, Anyway

You know what’s always a good time? Worldbuilding. I like researching what would make sense in a certain situation, and I like brainstorming things that would be cool, and it’s satisfying to find the place where the two fit together.

In this instance, I have a population of elves, some of whom are about to appear in the novel I’m working on. I realized I wasn’t sure what they should look like exactly. I know what the elves of my fantasy world look like in general terms, but like humans, they vary in traits like build, skin tone, and hair and eye color. For these elves, I wanted to choose traits that would logically evolve in their home environment, a chain of equatorial, volcanic islands. I also wanted them to have a look that evokes fire/ash/smoke, since they are particularly attuned to fire magic.

So, I drew up a couple of possible color schemes:

fire elf

The first image rather un-subtly suggests fire, with its red-orange overtones. The second image reflects one of the skin tone/hair color combinations found among the humans living on the nearby mainland. The third image is grayer to be reminiscent of ash. The fourth takes into account that these are equatorial islands, so the elves should perhaps be quite dark-skinned. I gave the skin a slightly grayish cast to evoke charcoal and smoke.

Then, some research! The mainland closest to these islands is loosely based, geographically, on India. Turns out the real India actually has an island with an active volcano. It’s called Barren Island (gosh, wonder why?), and it’s in the Andaman and Nicobar island chain. These islands don’t straddle the equator, but they’re not too far off.

(The following is Internet research, and I can’t guarantee its accuracy. I would DEFINITELY do further research if I were actually writing about the Andamanese people. In this instance, however, I am just trying to determine what people living on an island chain like theirs might plausibly evolve to look like.)

The Andamanese people are comprised of multiple tribes with different languages and cultures, but have some physical characteristics in common. They are typically short and slender, with very dark skin.

The elves of my fantasy world are already short and slender, so that works out nicely. Otherwise, my research nudged me toward the elf design on the far right, the darkest one.

I take this also as an opportunity to subvert some fantasy tropes. These will be very dark-skinned people with red, yellow, or orange eyes (see again: fire imagery). When these traits appear in fantasy, the characters who have them are often sinister, and sometimes outright monsters. (Which has pretty terrible implications vis-a-vis perceptions of dark-skinned people.) These elves are neither sinister nor monstrous, but are generally seen as refined and creative. They are known for their fire magic and their main export, high-end glassware.

Now, I can get back to actual writing, knowing that I’ll be better able to describe these elves when they appear. Huzzah!

We Need to Talk About Scrivener

Hey guys. Guys. So I went to this conference, and it was neat and everything, and I hope to recap it soon. I also read a bit of my writing aloud with other authors at the Brewster Literary Evening at our library, which I was strong-armed into doing because they had so few people sign up who weren’t poets and they wanted more variety, but which I nonetheless greatly enjoyed. Now, busy though I am with preparing to be clobbered by a hurricane with the same name as my mother (if this were fiction, there would be a really unsubtle metaphor in there), I have to share with you a thing that is great. That thing is Scrivener.

You may have heard of it already – I had. I’d thought, “Eh, it’s probably neat, but mastering it would involve time and I’d have to pay money and would it really make that much of a difference to my work and life?” (This is, incidentally, a fair description of how I feel about the idea of watching Doctor Who.)

And yeah, it does cost money (though I hear that you get a discount if you finish NaNoWriMo). But not all that much, and can I just say that it’s awesome? Multiple author panelists at the conference I attended raved about it, and I really liked the idea of the little corkboard displays and stuff, so I thought I’d give it a try. I bought the software and spent about an hour going through the full tutorial. And the niftiness factor, it is high.

I’d been thus far unsatisfied with other programs I’d used to organize my writing thoughts and research. A paper notebook is fine for brainstorming, but when I’m actually writing, there’s a laptop on my lap and nothing else, so I really wanted something on the computer. I tried just writing my notes out in my regular word processing program, but I would either wind up with one long, rambly document that I’d have to search through for a specific detail or an unwieldy number of shorter documents, usually scattered through folders in an inconvenient way. I tried the free downloadable program GrowlyNotes and, while some aspects of it are neat, it just didn’t work for me. Scrivener was the only such program I’d heard of designed specifically for writers, so it seemed worth a shot.

And it is great. Basically, opening a Scrivener document gives you a virtual binder (mine, at least, had been thoughtfully emptied of women) which you can divide into folders. The project I’m currently working on has a folder for characters, a folder for locations, a folder for general information about the geography and culture of this fantasy world, and a template folder. The template folder allows you to create templates – e.g. a character sheet – from which to easily create files. Each of these can hold text files, images, even sound files, which can be linked to each other, tagged with keywords that you can use to sort them, and viewed in a bunch of different ways.

For example, you can put them on a corkboard (corkboard!) as index cards (index cards!):

Screen shot Characters

Each of these index cards represents the “synopsis” I’ve given to a full character sheet within the Characters folder.

Notice the different-colored pushpins in the upper right corners of the index cards. These represent colors I’ve assigned to keywords: in this case, the turquoise represents male characters and the gold female characters. (Turquoise and gold are the colors of this country, Liratora.)

If you don’t like the corkboard, then you’re strange, but you can see the files in a folder with their synopses in outline view, too:

Screen shot cities

You can also split the screen:

Screen shot split screen

This view can be especially useful if, for example, you’ve found a picture that looks like one of your characters, and you put the picture in one panel and your current draft in the other panel.

Because that’s another thing. Even though I’m not currently using Scrivener for this purpose – I just wanted a place to put my notes – it has a lot of handy features for you to use in writing the actual draft. (Especially if you’re writing a script, which I’m not, but that’s cool.) Plus, when you go to export a draft at the end, it has some cool options, like exporting it directly into e-book-friendly format.

Plus, click on one of these to make it bigger and check out the little icons I got to choose for my Characters, Locations, etc. folders. How great are they? That’s what happens when you create a program specifically geared toward writers. Those icons are designed to represent “characters” and “locations” folders. And they’re not even the only options. I’LL BE SHALLOW IF I WANT TO SHUT UP.

So, Scrivener. Nic approves.

If You’re Going to Dance in Storms, You Should Probably Research Them First

So, awhile ago, I was looking at upcoming teen books to potentially order for the library where I work, and I saw this:


And then I saw this:

“. . . Japanese Steampunk novel with mythical creatures, civil unrest, and a strong female protagonist . . .” – from Patrick Rothfuss’ blurb

My heart, it went pitter-pat.

So I ordered the book for our library. It arrived, looking just as pretty as the image above, and has so far circulated a couple of times. I have not read it. But recently, I started reading some reviews that made my heart go things other than pitter-pat. Things more in the general vein of “sink,” if I had to be specific.

The first review I saw was this one at lady business, which broadly and briefly covers some facts that have been bothering people: author Jay Kristoff seems to have got a lot of his Japanese culture stuff (notably terms of address, whether or not pandas live in Japan) wrong, and then basically brushed off all criticism: “It’s fantasy, folks, not international frackin’ diplomacy.”

For a much more detailed, blow-by-blow account of problems one reader had with the book, see the review at You’re Killing Me. While I, too, would probably take issue with the Bathing Scene of Unexamined Creepiness (I must here recommend this excellent post on the male gaze in writing), the thing mostly under scrutiny in Stormdancer is that it’s inaccurate to Japan and Japanese culture.

Kristoff’s main response to this criticism seems to be a claim that the story actually takes place in a land like Japan, and not actual Japan. Some people are brushing this off, but I think it’s an important point. I strongly believe that people should be able – even encouraged – to write settings that are loosely based on non-European civilizations in the same way that oh so many fantasies take place in settings that are loosely based on European cultures. You shouldn’t be held to the historical facts of a country that your setting is only based on, any more than we should shake our fists at dozens of popular fantasy authors because medieval Europe didn’t really have this term or that animal.

I wrote myself awhile ago about coming up with another name for garments my characters were wearing that are close to saris in part because I didn’t want people assuming my setting was India when it isn’t; a similar concern is expressed by blogger Linda in this excellent post on her desire to write fantasy with Asian characters that isn’t set in Asia. (Yes, technically, one is only Asian if one comes from Asia. What she means is that she wants to write characters who, if they were in our world, would be considered to look Asian, in the same way that legions of blonde and blue-eyed fantasy heroes and heroines would look recognizably Caucasian, despite the fact that their fantasy worlds presumably have no Caucasus regions.)

BUT. The blurb right on the front cover of Stormdancer refers to the novel as “Japanese,” and Kristoff doesn’t correct it. There is, apparently, very frequent use of Japanese terms – the book actually includes a glossary. Curiously, some of the terms, like -sama and hai, are used incorrectly throughout the book but have their correct uses described in the glossary. This does rather support Kristoff’s claim that he has fudged and changed things a la George R. R. Martin, who bases his famous A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series loosely on England during the War of the Roses, but changes spellings (“sir” to “ser,” for example).

Still, the impression I get is that Kristoff has crossed the line into appropriation territory. (For a good article on the location of this line, see the Zoe-Trope.)

I also get the impression he makes some choices that are just plain unfortunate. Linda, whose blog I mentioned earlier, also gives us an excellent rant on how frustrating it is that, in a world populated with characters who look Japanese, everyone swoons over the protagonist’s love interest . . . because of his green eyes. Certainly being attracted to people who look different from you is common – and often genetically useful – but to make everyone wildly attracted to (and not even a little, um, freaked out by) an eye color that presumably they’ve never seen on a human before? And an eye color that, not gonna lie, is pretty much a white thing? Kiiinda problematic.

Related to that, one thing I’ve personally gained from all this: the idea of researching different cultures’ standards of beauty. I think that paying so much attention to eye color is really kind of a white thing – if everyone in your culture has brown eyes, are you going to notice it when you meet a new person? That would be kind of like noticing that they have a nose. (On a side note, how hilarious would it be if a character did describe each person s/he met without taking anything for granted? “He walked upright on two legs, with one head located at the top of his body . . .” Somewhat hilarious, is my guess, followed by very tedious.) I’ve already tried to emphasize other, non-eye-color features in the aforementioned not-set-in-India fantasy, but I’ll be curious to learn more about how other cultures measure attractiveness.

How about you? What features do your characters notice about themselves and others? What features do their cultures value and devalue?

The Truth About Lying

You know what bothersome thing I’ve frequently seen in fiction? Characters who apparently have unnoted psychic lie-detecting abilities.

Looking into his eyes, she knew he spoke the truth.


“She’s lying,” I said with certainty.


He clearly believed what he was saying.

Righty-ho. Maybe our hero saw the suspect leaving the scene, so he knows for a fact that she’s lying when she says she was never there. Perhaps our hero is the suspect’s lifelong bestest best friend, and feels able based on that to judge whether she’s telling the truth. Possibly our hero is actually psychic. In these cases, the reader is usually made aware of the relevant facts.

Or, ooh! Maybe the author wants to stop that line of questioning and proceed in another direction, so we need to believe this loose end is tied up, which doesn’t work if the person in question might be lying. Or perhaps our heroine is about to rough the suspect up, and would seem like a jerk for doing that if she wasn’t sure he was lying.

This is especially common with characters who are trained as psychologists, or are cops, or grew up on the streets and had to learn to read people, or are just “very intuitive.” There are any number of qualifications that render a character able to act as a lie detector. Only, you know, reliable. Unlike actual lie detectors.

I personally can’t claim any degree of this ability. It sometimes takes me a moment to realize people are even being sarcastic. If someone were actually trying to deceive me, I fear the chances of my recognizing that fact would be perilously slim.

But I’m not alone! I recently read the excellent – if eerie – article “On the Psychology of Confessions: Does Innocence Put Innocents at Risk?” by Saul Kassin. This paper, which spans many experiments and case studies, explores the question of how good people actually are at telling whether or not other people are lying. Not good, as it turns out. Furthermore, training – such as that given to police interrogators – did not statistically increase their accuracy, but did increase their confidence in their accuracy. (How’s that for scary?)

While the whole article is a fascinating read, the fact that grabbed me most comes from a footnote. “After testing more than 13,000 people from all walks of life, O’Sullivan and Ekman (2004) have thus far identified only 15 ‘wizards’ of lie detection who can consistently achieve at least an 80% level of accuracy in their judgments” (Kassin 2005). (I would cite the original work, The Wizards of Deception Detection by O’Sullivan and Ekman, rather than citing a citation, but the original is a book rather than an article I can just read online and link to.)

That’s about 0.001% of people who are consistently correct in distinguishing between truth and lies . . . at least four times out of five.

So even the 0.001% of humans who are the absolute best at telling truth from lies might still be wrong as much as 20% of the time.

I’m sure there are rogue super-wizards who are correct so consistently that they are, for all practical purposes, accurate lie detectors. Still, it would be nice for writers to keep in mind that this is extremely, extremely rare. Just being a cop or psychologist or a streetwise con artist does not qualify a person to sniff out falsehoods.

Naturally, this doesn’t preempt a character’s believing that s/he is super-accurate, or that someone else is. But if a character actually is reliably accurate, the writer should perhaps be aware that that character has been endowed with an incredibly rare ability. (Or possibly absurdly good luck.)

Besides all of this hard-facts stuff, I typically find characters more relatable when they’re unsure about who to believe in these situations. It also gives a scene more depth and tension when the character and the reader aren’t sure what’s true and who to trust.

Overdue Update

*Generic final exams/holiday/family stuff happening-related excuse for not posting*

Work on the graphic-novel-ish project is coming along well. I’ve been doing both the writing and the drawings for it, though the writing is far ahead of the artwork (eight chapters written, two illustrated). I’ve already scanned the drawings for the first two chapters and integrated them with the written parts in a sort of mock-up of what the story should be like.

The written work is in its first draft, of course. I’m not sure, draft-wise, where the drawings are. I’ve been sketching them in mechanical pencil, then tracing with pen and erasing the sketches. I’m quite happy with them, but I am beginning to look at tablets that would let me use a pen-like tool to draw things directly on the computer. This would make changing them immeasurably easier, and also give me the valuable ability to draw lines that have the potential to be erased, but also the potential to be final draft lines. As it is now, I basically draw every illustration twice, and occasionally – despite things being just how I want them in the sketch – the pen just goes jagging off on its own and does something else.

My brother has a tablet that he rarely uses, but when I tried it once before, I found it unintuitive and difficult to use. I plan to try it again over winter break. Lots of artists I admire – especially webcomic ones – use tablets to do awesome art, so obviously it can be done.

Anyway, the project is still very exciting to me. And it provides a brand-new list of strange things for me to research, e.g. hummingbird species of northern California. I do love me some bizarre research!


My Human Information Interactions class has assigned a paper. I have to write about a time when I had an information need, how I went about trying to resolve it, and how that played out. (This need must not be a simple factual question that can be answered easily.)

Writing has provided me with an unthinkable number of choices for this paper. Ye gods, I made acorn cakes from scratch to resolve an incredibly minor point. I am a research fiend. I’ve decided, though, to do my paper on my extensive research on albinism, which I started for the purpose of writing The Dogwatchers.

It’s funny how many bizarre things I have, at some time, dedicated myself to researching. None of these searches is ever totally over. I may be satisfied, but if I happen to run across new information or a new possible source, I’ll jump on it. Witness my searching UNC Chapel Hill’s library for information on albinism when The Dogwatchers was nearly finished, after years of harassing doctor friends, the Internet, etc. on the subject.

(The real question is, will I have the faith in my own tact to ask my dad’s new coworker, who has albinism – I think it’s even the same type as the character in The Dogwatchers – to read it? “Ahem, so, [Adorable Young Music Professor], your position is tenure-track, is it not? Remind me, is that one of those committees my father is on? It is? Oh, no reason. By the way, I’ve written this book . . .”)

(Okay, I could probably be more tactful than that.)

Repeat After Self: First. Draft.

. . . is what I keep having to tell myself as I press on through the last fifth or sixth or so of The Dogwatchers. It’s wildly exciting to be so close to the end, but there are definitely things over which I pause, torn, before saying, “FIRST DRAFT!” and continuing to write.

One thing I’ve run into was well-put by literary agent Rachelle Gardner in her blog entry on foreshadowing versus “telegraphing.” When you, the author, already know that something unexpected is going to happen, it’s hard sometimes not to let that knowledge slip in. Indeed, while Ms. Gardner says that authors often do this in the name of foreshadowing, “telegraphing” – basically, giving overly-obvious hints as to something that’s going to happen, particularly if that thing is supposed to be a twist – can be far more insidious.

At one point in The Dogwatchers, I caught myself giving characters an explicit contingency plan for a situation that really had no reason to occur to them: “If A doesn’t work, we’ll do B.” They should have just planned on A, a solid-seeming course, been totally surprised when it failed, and come up with B afterward. This way, readers will be as surprised as the characters are when Plan A doesn’t work, rather than having the idea that it might fail already planted in their heads. Indeed, as I first wrote it, readers might assume that Plan A will fail, or else why would the story detail Plan B?

This is basically the same problem as that in Ms. Gardner’s example. Avoid having your characters consider the possibility that something will happen when that something is supposed to be even remotely surprising. This can be difficult, since you certainly don’t want your characters to fail to think of an obvious possibility, but then, of course, the problem is that your twist is obvious, and you’ll want to address that. I think some writers are tempted to include arguments against the likelihood of the twist, as in Ms. Gardner’s example: a character says, “What if X is the case?” and another character responds, “No way, for these reasons!” All this does is make readers aware of the possibility of X. They may even spot the loophole in the characters’ reasoning against X, which will make them suspect that X will, in fact, happen.


On a totally different note, I have to once again rave a little (the good kind of raving) about a book that I picked up for research, Daniel Pool’s What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew. Highly readable and sometimes humorous, it contains well-organized and information-packed chapters on various aspects of Victorian England, including money, the peerage, fashion, marriage, orphans, fox hunting . . . the list goes on. It explains the historical basics of each subject, then gives interesting tidbits, like which card games were trendy and which ones played mostly by stuffy old people *coughwhistcough*, and includes examples from Victorian fiction. There’s also a fantastic glossary of Victorian terms.

The book’s stated intent is to serve as a reference for people who are reading Victorian novels and can’t understand the money talk or want to know the difference between a barrister and a solicitor (like Eugene and Mortimer in Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend), but it’s also an amazing tool for worldbuilders insomuch as it presents a society with rules strange and different from our own, then explains the details and processes by which all of these things functioned. Especially valuable if you or someone you know writes steampunk. And after all, the holidays are coming up . . .


This past week I:

– Worked on The Dogwatchers. Muddled through a scene that is supposed to be subtle. Repeat after self: “First draft.”

– Officially accepted place at the school of Information and Library Science at UNC Chapel Hill. Will start in January. Exciting!

– Read Farenheit 451.

I’m also reading, for world-building purposes, an excellent book called What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew. Their time periods are later than my world’s analogous period, but the book is fascinating in its own right as well as providing insight on how a number of extinct institutions and traditions actually functioned. It’s really intended to be a reference while reading the works of Dickens, Austen, Trollope, Thackeray, and so on – some of its detailed explanations (English currency, brief rules of whist and other card games) are hard to take in. In some cases, though, as with the rules of social precedence, this is the point – people living at the time had trouble with them, too.

The most interesting thing I’ve learned so far is that debtors’ prison was a less-nonsensical concept than I had imagined. I used to think, “Wait, they can’t pay, so you put them in jail? Now they can’t work or do anything to get money to pay! This isn’t even a vicious cycle, it’s a dead end!”

What actually happened depended on whether you were a “debtor” or a “bankrupt,” a distinction relying on whether you were considered legally to be a tradesman. A “bankrupt” would have all of his or her possessions seized, sold, and used to pay creditors as much as was possible. Any extra money went to the bankrupt person. If the debts weren’t covered, oh well; they’d done all they could, and no one could get more from them. (Interestingly, if someone failed to pay rent, the owner of the establishment could go in to take and sell the person’s furniture to make up the rent money.)

In the case of a “debtor,” things started when a creditor paid a shilling for an arrest warrant, which they gave to the sheriff, who arrested the owing party and put him or – well, okay, generally him – into custody. It wasn’t always bad custody; he might even be put up in the sheriff’s house. This was just to ensure that the person appeared in court, where he might yet be found not to owe money at all. No one seems to have checked these things, so the whole situation reminds me of those charity events at college where you pay to have one of your friends “arrested,” and the friend then has to get someone to pay “bail.”

Once you were found a debtor, and without cash on hand to pay, you were asked to sell your possessions and pay as much of the debt as possible, like a bankrupt. The difference was that a debtor could refuse, at which point it was off to debtors’ prison. The prison actually acted as a coercion device to encourage people to sell their belongings and pay off their debts. Once they had nothing to sell – no way that they potentially could pay their creditors – they could no longer legally be held in prison.

So, huzzah for learning things!