THE ORPHAN SCRIVENER ISSUE # TWENTY l5 APRIL 2003

Like the spectre at the feast or the skeleton in the cupboard, there lurks in many a corner tonight the ghastly thought that the deadline for the timely filing of US tax returns is well and truly upon us. That mild man Lewis Carroll probably shared the feeling, since when he listed an eclectic collection of things he hated he included three folk under one umbrella, spiders, gout and the income tax. And now, alas, as if American subscribers had not already suffered enough with April l5th being Tax Day of Doom, here comes this edition of Orphan Scrivener. Hopefully it will distract readers for a while -- or else drive them to distraction. Either way, feel free to stop chewing your pencil, put aside the aspirin and instruction booklets and dive right in!

ERIC'S BIT or A FEW THOUGHTS ON WRITING

Recently I read Stephen King's ON WRITING. His thoughts were of interest me because he's one of my favorite authors, not to mention one of the great writers of our time

In my opinion.

Not everyone agrees. I knew a fellow with a literary bent but no publisher, for whom the name Stephen King was the epitome of opprobrium. "It's no wonder good writers can't get published anymore, with all these bestselling hacks like Stephen King out to make a buck," he'd say.

I, on the other hand, am pretty sure that if I could write half as well as Stephen King, John the Eunuch would be a household name and people would be reading the books Mary and I write a century or more from now, just as they'll still be reading King and Dickens, another famous hack.

I believe King's books will stand the test of time better than almost all the literary fiction produced in the past fifty years. They deal with a basic human concern, a subject that isn't a passing fad, and one that has particularly poignancy for our era -- fear.

In his first inaugural address President Franklin Roosevelt told Americans they had nothing to fear but fear itself. Given the advances in human knowledge and abilities, he was right. Mankind finally has the wherewithal to vanquish disease, starvation, ignorance, injustice. Yet for the past half century we've been driven blindly on by a succession of fears. Reds under our beds, juvenile delinquents, missile gaps, crime, drugs, Japan buying up all the real estate in America (remember that one?) There was a time in the sixties when more than a few parents seemed to be afraid of their own idealistic kids. How much more could have been accomplished if we hadn't expended so much energy and so many resources on compiling black lists and building back yard fallout shelters and waging wars on shadows? Out of fear. Today, of course, its terror we're instructed to be afraid of -- fear itself -- the very thing Roosevelt warned us was most destructive of all.

I'm not saying that Stephen King has in mind to pontificate about any of this -- that's just me. He'd probably say it was nonsense. Actually he'd put it more pungently. Still, I don't think it's a coincidence that his primary subject fascinates our fear-shackled society.

So I wanted to know what Stephen King had to say about writing.

Nothing startling, it turned out. Nothing much different from what any teacher might have told me. Or what I might've told myself. As King admits, "Fiction writers, present company included, donít understand very much about what they do-not why it works when itís good, not why it doesnít when itís bad."

No kidding. Probably that's why I'm practically shaking every time I open up a new blank document.

Still, it was fascinating to see what he thought was important and what was not and which of the familiar techniques and bits of advice on which he chose to focus. I couldn't help comparing his manner of writing to what Mary and I do.

One big difference is that King doesn't like outlines. Mary and I write the John novels from detailed outlines because we can't think of how else to keep everything in order while co-writing a mystery. If we were to write individually I would still use an outline but Mary wouldn't. Oddly, King mentions INSOMNIA as one of the few books for which he used an outline. He doesn't like it much, but it's a favorite of mine.

On the other hand, King approaches those literary darlings, symbolism and theme, almost exactly as Mary and I do. For King symbolism and theme are not carefully concocted literary tricks, but simply things which are revealed as he unearths the story and which, when he notices them, he proceeds to polish and enhance, not to impress critics, but to enrich the reader's experience. Which is exactly what Mary and I do. As a book nears completion we will add a scene here and a paragraph there, to highlight some interesting thread we've noticed.

Wow. We're doing something right! That's encouraging.

I'm sure there are those who will sneer that there's nothing to be learned from a popular author because if the writing were good the masses wouldn't buy it. There are probably others who would counter that the only writing they consider "good" is writing that sells.

Both are wrong. Good writing sells, but sales are not the sole measure of good writing. I can't know for certain, but I doubt that many writers, even bestselling ones, are thinking about dollars all the time they are writing, any more than Sammy Sosa is thinking about how much he's earning every time he swings a baseball bat.

Not surprisingly, King nails it when he says that the most important thing about writing is "the language." Certainly. That's the raw material, the essence. That's what we are concentrating on. Trying to find the right word, shape the perfect sentence. At the end of the day some have written books that will bring in a fortune, but that isn't what it is about.

I must say, though, as much as I love Stephen King's books, and wish him all the success in the world (and how can't you like a guy who loves both baseball and the Ramones?) still I kind of hope he won't start writing historical mysteries. I might never be able to approach my word processor again!


NECESSARY EVIL or THE BSP TICKER

The BSP Ticker's taken the day off, since there's no news to pass along this time, alas. Will Try To Do Better Next Time. Next Time. In the meantime, however, we can remind you that books one to three of the John the Eunuch series are available in trade paperback, while two to four are out in hardback. You may also find some of our stories in various anthologies such as The Mammoth Book of Egyptian Whodunnits.


MARY'S BIT or REEDS AS RENT

Some years ago I asked a person at the IRS if they ever accepted items in lieu of taxes, after the ancient fashion of quit-rents. Rather startled, she replied they did not, not realising I was pulling the collective legs of the Service, I being at the time young and unskillful (though not, per Kipling, a gambling kid ordained to be sold).

Having emerged this very morning from a hand-to-hand struggle to wrassle this year's tax returns to the floor, while gloomily contemplating cheques to go with them I found myself recalling that long ago conversation and thereby began musing about so-called peppercorn rents.

I must say I find it an attractive notion, especially when quit-rents really are tendered in peppercorns.

Trinity Church on New York's Broadway paid 279 of them to Elizabeth II on the occasion of her l976 visit to the church, this being one for each year since William III decreed their rent would be one peppercorn a year. Presumably the Crown waived interest on the arrearage, seeing as it was Bicentennial year. Similarly, in St George, Bermuda, every April the Freemason Lodge hands over a single peppercorn to the governor as payment for its use of the State House. Talk about a bargain rent!

On the other hand, the government charges the Cayman Islands National Museum an annual rent of a coil of locally produced thatch rope. Unfortunately the record appears silent as to what happens to these lengths of rope once they pass into the landlords' hands -- perhaps they just hang about in an official warehouse somewhere?

Like coils of rope, some quit-rents were originally vastly more useful to property owners than they are nowadays. Consider that each year in London the City Solicitor hands over six enormous horseshoes of the type used for knights' chargers -- apparently these particular specimens are over 500 years old -- plus an appropriate number of nails to a representative of the Crown. The ironmongery is payment for leasing certain ancient land, although it's said nowadays nobody is certain where the property is actually situated although it's thought to be in the Chancery Lane area.

You might think that this sort of unusual rent would become increasingly difficult to find each year given that such horseshoes are scarce on the ground not to mention the hoof these days, but in fact the City Solicitor overcomes the problem with ease. After he's handed the rent to the Crown representative and it's been solemnly counted and accounted for, the City Solicitor takes horseshoes and nails back and keeps them for next year's "payment"!

Flowers are a popular form of quit-rent. For example, each June a landlord in Leicester pays four old pennies and one rose to the mayor as rent for the Crown and Thistle pub. One's sense of the fitness of things might be outraged that a rose and not a thistle forms part of this annual payment, but on the other hand whereas those sweet-scented blooms are fairly easy to find in mid-summer, as time passes old pennies must surely be getting more and more difficult to scratch up. It's always possible that eventually the Crown and Thistle's rent might be changed to, say, half a print of best bitter and a rose, an eminently practical solution if so.

Another homely quit-rent involves the Covent Garden Area Trust. Since the early l990s an annual payment of a apple and a posy has been levied each June on the Trust's tenants, which include the famous fruit and vegetable market and nearby associated historic buildings such as several houses in a Georgian terrace as well as a block that includes the London Transport Museum.

So the seemingly absurd idea of handing over flowers or rope or spices to pay one's taxes -- which we might characterise as rent for the privilege of working -- is not that far fetched, although admittedly the problem of storing all that stuff might well prove unsurmountable. More importantly for the individual, though, is how would the IRS know who paid with what rose if the Service subsequently had an axe to grind with the hapless taxpayer?

All well and good, you may say, but what about the header to this section? Well, since l958 a reed has been presented annually to the Royal Hospital School in Holbrook, Norfolk, as payment for villagers' recreational use of the school's Reade Field, thus proving the British, as well as the Byzantines, are fond of puns.

Unfortunately it's pounds, not puns, the British equivalent of the IRS would like to see.


AND FINALLY

Not to tax your patience any longer, we'll bring this edition to a close with the observation that the next newsletter will sneak into your email in-box on June l5th, St Vitus' Day. Among other things the saint is commonly invoked against oversleeping, dog bites, storms and lightning. However, we trust when Orphan Scrivener 2l arrives two months from today it'll be the only disaster with which you must cope on that particular date. See you then!

Best wishes
Mary and Eric

who invite you to visit their home page, hanging out on the virtual washing line that is the aether at

http://home.epix.net/~maywrite/

Therein you'll find the usual suspects, including more personal essays and an interactive game as well as an on-line jigsaw puzzle (at least if you have a java-enabled browser) featuring One For Sorrow's boldly scarlet cover. For those new to the subscription list there's also the Orphan Scrivener archive, so don't say you weren't warned!


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