Celebrating Sesame Seeds

Today I’m celebrating something very small. Sesame seeds. I love the things. I’m always happy to encounter them, whether in ‘benne candy’ (those oblong rectangles of solidified honey full of sesame seeds that I always try to suck on and end up crunching), sesame chicken or hamburger rolls. I think it’s part of the human condition to chase sesame seeds across our plates, lick our fingers, catch the seeds, and bring them to our mouths.

This is a scene from a story I’m working on. It takes place in Egypt, God save the mark, and the two people are sitting in a plain, dockside tavern and discussing something very serious over a lunch of bread and, perhaps, some fish:

     “There is that.” Intef reached for the jar of beer. “I can send troops over tomorrow, but it will be in a rush.”
     Seti frowned and sat back, absently chasing sesame seeds with a fingertip.  “That might be a good thing,” he said after he licked the seeds off. “As soon as it can be arranged at any rate. Space is limited there – best to set up an encampment.”

     “That may take some time,’ Intef said.
     “That’s what I am afraid of.” He looked for more seeds and then shrugged. “And that is why I am uneasy.” He hooked the gold pendant from beneath his tunic, slipped it over his head, took the ring from the cord and handed it to Intef. “If I need the forces at once I will send to you. This ring is the token I will use. It does not matter who carries it: the request will be coming straight from me.”

They could easily be sitting in McDonald’s chasing sesame seeds across their plates.

There is not a lot that sesame can’t improve in any form. (Toasted) sesame oil adds a lot of flavor, sprinkle a handful in a dish and it adds looks and taste:

I’m going to have a toasted sesame bagel for breakfast, and I’m going to chase all the seeds.


The Author’s Pet

I read a book a while back that had me puzzled.  It was well crafted, colorful, moved at a good pace, but there was something skewed…  I put my finger on it when I reread the description of the hero.  He was just fabulous.  His name consisted of four luscious, historical names strung together.  He was a duke, the king’s best friend.  But the thing that brought everything into focus was his physical description, right down to his blond sideburns, in lingering detail.  Gosh, he was handsome, with that bloom of golden hairs that bordered those sideburns. 

Yep,  I thought.  An author’s pet.

You run into them fairly often in detective series.  The characters who set foot in a messy situation and you just know that things will be straightened out at once.  They’re always fabulously handsome or beautiful, unbelievably accomplished.

A recent series of mysteries had as its main sleuth a woman who was, among other things, an Olympic Equestrian, a (top winning) competitive ballroom dancer in addition to being young, beautiful, and a top-ranking forensic anthropologist.  I wasn’t sure when she slept.  Another story featured a female sleuth, fresh out of college, who happened to be visiting the UK when a bad situation came up.  She was summoned to Scotland Yard and had an interview with one of the top-ranking people there.

“I want you to assist us with this,” he says to her.  “We need your trained mind.”

Trained mind?  I thought.  In a kid that age?  Well, to be fair, it was the writer’s first book, and from what I could see he/she was trading on the fact that his/her mother was a best-selling author.  And the writer had quite an author’s pet.

Writers do have them.  I have a character who could be one.  I love writing about him.  He’s a lot of fun, lends a lot of color to his stories (I’m working on a sequel).  He’s my own invention – except for his name, which is historical.  Who is he?  An Egyptian crown prince.  Named for the eldest son of Ramesses II, but I went off on a tangent with his story.

I don’t think he is quite the ‘ta-DA!’ sort.  I worked very hard to keep him from being one.  He has his own reality.

I think what lies at the heart of ‘Authors’ Pets’ is the author imposing his or her own desires on the character without taking into account the personality of the character as developed through the author’s writing.  The moment you put words on paper they become real.  If you have something happen in your story, it is fact.  So, if in the course of a story you have a character that behaves in a certain way and has (at least in your mind) certain characteristics, then everything he does must be in conformity with his reality as you have given it.

My Crown Prince character (his name is ‘Hori’) started out as a villain of sorts.  About twenty years ago I started writing various vignettes based on books I was working on at the time.  This was before I had a computer and electronic storage ability.  These vignettes (I called them ‘fragments’ or ‘blips’) occurred to me and I typed them out.  I had several stories based on the character of Khaemwaset, the fourth son of Ramesses and, at one point, his crown prince.  We know a fair amount about him.  In the course of weaving stories around him, I jotted an account of a jubilee festival that he hosted for his father when he was High Priest at Memphis.

His older brother, Amunhorkhepechef, the Crown Prince, makes an appearance and says something nasty. 

The jottings sit in a three-ring binder, but Pharaoh’s Son owes some of its substance to them.  In that novel a colossal statue falls in the middle of a festival throng, causing havoc.  Khaemwaset (from now on ‘Khay’) looks into matters; it happened in his own backyard, since he is the Vizier, or Prime Minister, of Northern Egypt, and the High Priest of the temple where it occurred.  He asks for assistance from Pharaoh, who sends his Crown Prince, Amunhorkhepechef (from now on ‘Hori’) to oversee things with his brother.

Hori was not a happy fellow.  He was arrogant, had a sharp tongue, and did not suffer fools gladly.  He strode into the story…

When you write about someone, you work both forward (in time) and backward (in history).  Going forward the character might do something…but that may have arisen out of something that happened before.  So it was with Hori.  His history developed – soldier who is happiest overseeing the military concerns of the realm, called back to court against his wishes and angry and unhappy.  So why did Khay ask for him?  Hm…  Because they had renewed their friendship and Khay knew that Hori was unhappy.

The story moved from there.  A character that was supposed to be, if not a villain, certainly an unpleasant sort of person with humorous involvement, became one of the two heroes of the story.  I guess I let him grow up.

I’ve read books where the characters appear to have been stamped out and maneuvered like puppets.  I’ve read scenes that, given the characters’ personalities and histories as developed in the course of the story, should never have happened.  Well…

Georgette Heyer, in Sylvester, or The Wicked Uncle, expresses things nicely:

These naïve words struck Phoebe dumb for several moments.  It had not previously occurred to her that Ianthe might identify herself with The Lost Heir‘s golden-haired sister.  Having very little interest in mere heroes and heroines she had done no more than depict two staggeringly beautiful puppets, endow them with every known virtue, and cast them into a series of hair-raising adventures from which, she privately considered, it was extremely improbable they would ever have extricated themselves.

It’s all part of letting go, letting the thing you love – in this case the story and the character – be true to itself.

…To Be Continued…

This world is not conclusion;

A sequel stands beyond,

Invisible, as music,

But positive, as sound.

(Emily Dickinson)

People are naturally curious.  They like to ‘fill in the blanks’.  When I was growing up, I’d see someone and figure out what went before I saw him and then project what would happen to him afterward. I still do it.  In cases of extreme annoyance, I sometimes write a mental scene in which the person in question has an unpleasant experience – usually involving a blueberry cream pie in the face.  (Blueberry stains and custard is gooey.)

How many times have you read a book and wondered what happened to the characters afterward?  Jane Austen addressed this curiosity about her characters’ lives, I understand, after Emma was published.  She stated that Mr. Woodhouse lived a time after Emma and her Mr. Knightly married (and moved in with him) and by dying allowed them take up residence in Mr. Knightly’s residence of Donwell Abby.

While it is wonderful to finish a story, I always feel a strong sense of loss when I have to leave characters that I grew to love.   It’s like leaving beloved friends.  You can write a sequel – I’m doing it right now with Pharaoh’s Son – but sometimes the books stand alone and require no sequel.  In The Safeguard, my novel set in 1864 Georgia, the story ends in October of 1865 as Lavinia sees her little daughter throw aside her imaginary tea set, pick up her skirts, and go tearing across the lawn toward Sheppard, who has returned as he promised.  They marry, certainly, and they probably spend their time between her properties in Georgia and his home in Geneva, New York.  But there are no conflicts, no loose ends.  To follow them would be a letdown.

At the end of A Killing Among the Dead, Wenatef is leaving Egypt.  There is no life for him there, and he knows he will not live the year out if he stays.  But he’s heard of a white substance found in the mountains across the ocean, something soft and cold that you can crush in your hands like bread dough.  He decides to leave Egypt and travel to the mountains to see the white substance called ‘snow’.    Somehow, that situation caught my readers’ attention and people ask me “Will you write a story about Wenatef encountering snow?”

Well…  I may just write a quick several pages for my father, who really wants to see it.  But the story is set and while I have my own opinion of Wenatef’s future, it isn’t necessary to write a sequel.

How many series have continued to be written because the author has bowed to the wishes of a public who wants, say, just one more Sherlock Holmes story?  Or one more (fill in the blank with the name of a popular detective) story? I think the test of the necessity of a sequel is this: is there an overarching story line that mandates more than one ‘story’?  For example, in the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling, each story is complete in itself, but when they are strung together they lead to the final resolution envisioned in the first novel. 

Perhaps we are too used to being spoon-fed.   We are told what is what, our children play on toys that do everything for then, we sit in a constant stream of information and statistics.   I do not see that we are allowed much scope for the use of that wonderful power, imagination.  Perhaps we don’t want to use it.  It’s too dangerous.  Like a half-broken horse, it can run away with us and take us places that are uncomfortable, wild, perilous.

There’s a piece of conversation toward the end of A Killing Among the Dead that seems to fit into this train of thought.  When Wenatef is speaking with Unas the last time they meet, and Unas speaks of his madness:

“…To turn away from that – to fight free..”  He drew a shaking breath and was still.

“You can do it,” Wenatef said.  “The choice is yours.” 

It isn’t such a terrible plunge to take.  Let me set it up:

“So…  What happens next?”

“Next?  What do you mean?  That’s the end of the book.”

“No, really – what happens next after he leaves Egypt?”

The author sits back with a smile.  “What do you think happens next?” she asks.

Try it.  it’s fun.  Addictive, too.  In a nice way.

Writing Tools

Look familiar?

I like tools.  Any type of tools.  I can easily spend a month’s salary in a hardware store.  Or an office supply store.  Pens, pencils, screwdrivers, notebooks of all sizes, post-it notes, three-ring binders – I love them all.

But there are different types of tools, and each trade has its own.  For a writer the most important, I would imagine, are the writer’s imagination followed by his or her command of words, then grammar…  You get my drift.  I could get very philosophical and talk about writers with fabulous imaginations, but without the ability to write.  I’d love to cite Edgar Rice Burroughs, for example – except that I enjoy his writing.  But having read this passage, I can only chuckle:

“Your time shall come, then, I-Gos”, Gahan assured the other,
“and if you have any party that thinks as you do, prepare them
for the eventuality that will succeed O-Tar’s presumptuous attempt
to wed the daughter of the Warlord.  Where shall I see you again,
and when?  I go now to speak with Tara, Princess of Helium.”
    (From The Chessmen of Mars (c) 1922 by Edgar Rice Burroughs)
To be a writer, you need to have a writer’s abilities, so we can set that to one side.  But what of the tools that help the writer to write?
Something to write with, I’d imagine.  Nowadays if you don’t have a good word processing system, you’re in trouble.  I remember buying my first computer, put out by Epson.  I don’t know what its memory capacity was. I do know that if I wanted to use my word processing system (a very, very distant version of Word Perfect called ‘Professional Word’, as I recall) I had to fire up my computer (inserting the start-up disk, which was the size of a 45 record), then insert my program disk in the lower drive.  Then I could start writing.
I was resistant, initially.  What’s wrong with typing things?  I type well and quickly (110 wpm at last testing).  I was converted the first time I decided to change a character’s name and used Global Search to do so.  I never looked back.
That computer performed valiantly but was replaced in due time with one that had maybe one gigabyte of memory.  It took the diskettes that were a lot smaller and sturdier than the originals.  I converted most of them as quickly as I could.
Some place to store what you’ve written – like a diskette.  Hard copies are nice enough – except that you end up having to retype them which I now do not feel is quite so easy as I did.  Writers are always fiddling with things.  I’d make changes and save the changes – on a new diskette.  If you check out the photo, you’ll see that I have lots and lots of those diskettes – and the only machine I have that can read them is a Dell desktop that is getting old and crotchety.  (I’m writing this on an ACER Aspire that has a 300 gb hard drive, takes flash drives and CDS, and works beautifully.  But it doesn’t read my old diskettes.
Diskettes are not the only storage venues.  If you look at the photo, you’ll see a slice of my storage means: three-ring binders (the big, fat one sitting atop the bottom manuscript contains jottings on four different stories, none of which were ever saved to electronic media.  Salvageable?  Maybe.  I’m looking through them.
Then there are the notebooks.  I have lots of them.  I keep one in my purse and if something occurs to me, I jot it down.  How many times have I had a great idea for tweaking a scene, thought “Oh, I’ll remember it!” and then discovered that I couldn’t.  I came up with quite a system for jotting down, transcribing, and then marking what I transcribed.  But I hung on to the notebooks.  Lately, I was interested to see the absolute first notation on one of my books, The City of Refuge.  I had noted an idea for the story – and it was fairly well-developed – around 1984.  It sat in limbo for a time, then came into full blossom around 1994.
Pens.  Can you have enough?  I used to say that something like White-Out was a must. I don’t think so any more.
Most recently, I bought a stack of steno pads and four college-ruled 8 1/2 x 11  spiral bound notebooks.  I might need them.
In fact, I think I need to go through what I have and figure out what I need.
…and convert those old diskettes to CDS before I lose something crucial.