THE ORPHAN SCRIVENER ISSUE # TWENTY-EIGHT l5 AUGUST 2004

We're writing this newsletter as the dog days of summer go snuffling mournfully off over the horizon until next year. And a good job too. The two months since we last hounded our subscribers have been so wet and humid that trees, lawns and bushes -- usually crisped to an attractive toasty brown by this time of the year -- remain a brilliant Irish green, the sight of which suggests house windows have been mysteriously fitted with green filters overnight.

Speaking of turning green, doubtless readers are feeling somewhat emerald about the gills at the sight of this latest issue arriving at their email in-box. At least the editorial staff of Orphan Scrivener aren't as bad as those "concocters of newsletters" whom Chamber's Book of Days (l879) described as a "mob of unscrupulous scribblers". And just as well given the outraged writer went on to remark that said scribblers as well as ballad-singers (apparently given to uttering political pasquinades) annoyed the government no end, while sentences to pillory or jail had done no good.

Political the Scrivener is not, but as for pasquinades, since we have been known to indulge in a lampoon or two even if we don't go so far (literally) as to paste them on Pasquino's statue in Rome, perhaps our best plan would be to change the subject entirely.

So we shall.


ERIC'S BIT or BATTING IDEAS AROUND

WARNING: HEREIN THERE BE SPOILERS

I donít like to write about writing.

In my opinion, a lot of whatís written about writing doesnít mean anything. Most criticism is just personal opinion disguised as science. Youíll never convince me that thereís any objective measure of something like a "wooden characterĒ when, demonstrably, one readerís puppet is anotherís real live boy.

Besides, for me, writing mostly means telling stories and what can you say about making up stories? There are some technical tricks, of course, but a recitation of such stuff is yawn-inducing.

Mary and I collaborate, so some of what happens in our books is her idea and some is mine. Iím not exactly sure how my story ideas occur to me. Mostly they arise from the characters and whatever research Iím doing while Iím working on a chapter.

For example, in Five For Silver there is a scene in which a holy fool quite unexpectedly visits Theodora at the private baths in the palace. I had seen a photograph of a well preserved Roman bath, a circular pool in a small domed room. The dome had an opening in the middle to let in light and allow steam to escape. Hmmmm. Hole overhead, bath below. If youíve already got a half-crazed, wild fool in your story you just know heís not going to be able to resist an opening like that.

Who could he drop in on? Well, since the fool aims for the maximum outrage and thereís an empress in the book, the answer was obvious. As for visualizing a weird figure in billowing costume plummeting down, that wasnít much of a reach for someone whose favorite comic book hero was Batman.

But donít suppose all my influences are quite so low-brow. When I was wondering what Theodora might be doing before her visitor arrived, I recalled the Lawrence Alma-Tadema painting of two Roman women splashing each other in a bath, one of those classic Victorian excuses to display naked women. Anyway, when I thought about Theodora splashing a couple of court ladies, that led to a little byplay between the characters because considering the empressí temperament, if sheís urging you to splash her, perhaps you'd think twice.

Because Mary and I are typically writing different parts of a book simultaneously, we work from an outline to make sure weíre not getting in each otherís way. These outlines are not all that detailed. For instance, the outline for Chapter 20 of Four For a Boy begins:

"John and Felix pass an uncomfortable and cold night."

We know already they have been sent out into the streets by the Prefect, supposedly to lie in wait for malefactors. As it turns out they are attacked at dawn, but in between there needs to be a little about passing the night.

My first thought was they could hide in an alley. There are lots of dank, dark, and dangerous alleys in our books. According to your point of view, they are either cliches or repeated images fraught with meaning about the nature of Johnís time. Where else would you hide to watch the main street anyway? Not that an alley, in itself, offers much concealment. The Byzantines didnít have dumpsters, so how about a heap of refuse behind which you can hunker down? Thatís certainly uncomfortable. Not very interesting though.

I have a weakness for visuals which probably goes back to my comic book days. Gotham City was filled with bizarre architecture and gigantic animated billboards, perfect for Batman to swing from while he fought the Joker. So, aside from rotted produce which is not very visually appealing, what else might be thrown away? I recalled reading there were so many excess statues in the city some were stored in an otherwise deserted square. So, how about broken statuary? Marble is also cold. John and Felix can be truly cold and uncomfortable now, peering out from behind a pile of marble limbs.

Now we need a moon to illuminate the marble. Thatís a more interesting picture, but static. I added a window in the wall of one of the alley buildings and the dwelling's cranky tenant. Still not quite enough action to get through the whole night. Hmmmm. What else might be in an alley? Cats! I know that from Top Cat cartoons. Two cats get into a fight on the pile of marble limbs. Bif! Pow! Yowl!

Thatís certainly enough excitement for one night.

At dawn, according to the next part of the outline, John and Felix are attacked and a riot breaks out, involving their assailants, various shopkeepers and street people. Unarmed beggars taking on men with swords seemed farfetched. Then I realized the beggars had plenty of arms right to hand, not to mention legs so they came out swinging marble limbs from that heap in the alley.

Sometimes scenes write themselves.

Now that Iíve tried to unravel my mental processes, Iím not sure I like where they lead. I seem to have admitted I get my ideas from comic books and bad art.

Worse, Iím thinking about John. By day, he is a rich and powerful man. By night, he haunts the alleys of the city bringing criminals to justice. He has a callow young sidekick in Anatolius, a faithful elderly servant in Peter. His nemesis, aside from Theodora, is the former court page Hektor, who has always painted his face but recently has more reason to do so having suffered disfiguring lye burns.

I think I've just admitted that John is Batman.

I told you I didn't like to write about writing.


NECESSARY EVIL or THE BSP TICKER

We've often been asked why John is a secret Mithran in Justinian's Christian court and an essay explaining why will be published in the September, 2004 issue of The Write Stuff http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Wstuff. This monthly newsletter is a service of Catholic Writers Online http://www.catholicwritersonline.com and is devoted to news and articles devoted to writing and the Faith.

MARY'S BIT or KEEPING COOL IS A SIRIUS BUSINESS

As is well known, the ancients believed the rising dog star, in tandem with heat from the sun, was responsible for the annual stretch of hot weather between the beginning of July and mid August, this being what you might call a Sirius theory although not perhaps scientifically sound.

British summers are never that hot, especially in my home area, the windy north-east. Thus it'S not too often the temperature rises enough to feel really uncomfortable. While we were growing up, if the weekend turned really warm, the family sometimes trekked down river to the coast -- along with what seemed like half the city -- on day trips about which I wrote at

http://home.epix.net/~maywrite/geordie.htm#attic

However, one week-day during the summer holidays while the adults were at work, it started to get really warm not long after we'd spooned down our milk-mushy Weetabix breakfast. By dinner time it must have been in the low 70*s, because we reckoned it hot enough to have the calamine lotion bottle on standby for the anticipated bad cases of sunburn and kept sniffing the milk bottle to detect any suspicious aroma, the presence of which would mean anyone adding milk to their evening cup of tea would see lumps rising to its surface even if the bottle had been kept in a bucket of cold water all way -- our version of a fridge.

Keeping cool in an industrial atmosphere heavy with smoke and grit and chemicals in a city where air conditioners were not so much unknown as undreamt of, was a serious business. Once you've thrown up the sash windows to let in stray breezes, what else can you do? Eventually, having tired of throwing cold water on our faces and mopping up the flooded the scullery floor, my younger sister and I were suddenly inspired. Indeed, one could say perspiration was the mother of invention.

Bear in mind this particular dwelling had no indoor plumbing except a cold tap in the scullery. Hot water was dispensed in small quantities from a wall-mounted gas-heated geyser although if larger amounts were required, a metal bucket was pressed into service to boil whatever was needed on the cooker. However, and it was perfect for our plan, we lived in an upstairs flat whose back door opened to a precipitous flight of outdoor steps leading down into our back yard.

So what we did was gather together several common household items from which we handily constructed a nifty outdoor shower. It was a good example of makeshift engineering, formed by suspending a colander with three pieces of equi-spaced string from the handle of a broom. The bristle end of the broom was firmly tied with a skipping rope to the railing at the top of the stairs, so placed as to jut out over the yard below. Then a hosepipe was attached to the cold tap in the scullery, the sink being placed only a few steps away from the back door, and the other end of the hosepipe tied into the colander -- although a close eye had to be kept on it as well as the kitchen tap since both ends had a tendency to slip out of their allotted place.

I now wonder why we happened to even have a hosepipe, given there were no gardens to water around our way and nobody owned a car or anything else that would occasionally need to be washed down. In any event, once the contraption was in place, having put on our prickly black wool one-piece swimming suits and rubber bathing hats, we took turns to stand under the cooling sprays of water coming down through the colander holes while the other sibling kept a close eye on operations.

It worked pretty well, all in all, not to mention the concreted back yard got a good wash down as well.

Nowadays swimming pools, water parks, and visits to river, coasts, and islands are very popular and attract thousands of holidaymakers. Bearing that in mind perhaps we should consider patenting Reed's Miniature Portable Cooling System, which could be marketed with that wonderfully attractive slogan "No batteries required". Even better, if its purchasers grew tired of standing around getting wet, they could press its various components -- broom, colander, string, skipping rope, and hosepipe -- into their usual everyday use around the household and garden. Talk about frugal!


AND FINALLY

The imminent start of the new academic year draws closer as we send this issue, with the dreaded red blight of "Back To School" sales signs appearing more and more in stores and malls every day. Thomas Merton observed that October in America is fine and dangerous but a wonderful time to begin something new. You'll be able to rashly begin something new, if not dangerous, in mid October, since the next issue of Orphan Scrivener will roll into your in-box on l5th October.

See you then!

Best wishes
Mary R 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 (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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