Monthly Archives: January 2018

459. Steampunk Research, 2017

I’m offering a look at the nuts and bolts of how I organize my writing, in four posts. 456 explains the system I used for years. 457 tells how I keep order while writing today. 458 gives the gory details on why this system works and 459 shows you how to keep track of your research. Take what you can use and ignore the rest.

The best thing about doing novel research on a computer is that you have access to the world, instantly and right on your desktop.

The second best thing about doing research on a computer is that you don’t have to copy things down longhand.

I am very careful to respect the rights of other writers, especially on copyright issues. However, those rules don’t necessarily apply to copying into your own research notes to be considered, modified, used for inspiration, and not quoted.

You can’t copy everything you find on the internet, no matter how useful. Sometimes you have to bookmark. I found an 1868 map of London which I returned to a hundred times. It lives on Safari, along with bookmarks for thirty other websites I have used. A few of those which would be of general interest to steampunk fans and authors are: Beyond Victoriana, All Things Victorian, Historical Emporium (even if you don’t buy the clothes they sell), and The Victorian Web. That doesn’t even scratch the surface.

Another map from Wikimedia Commons was available in jpg. It lives on my desktop, along with a number of maps, coats of arms, and photographs whose jpgs could be snagged.

Whenever I copy from the internet into a word processor program, I always also copy the URL.

Most of what exists in the folder for The Cost of Empire consists of things I have written myself. I would guess that my character, historical, and world building notes probably run about half as many words as the novel itself.

So how can we keep track of all this?

I explained about keeping track of the chapters two posts ago, and about the nitty gritty of ordering last post. Now let’s tie it all together.

Here is a low-fat version of what my folder looks like, with 11 files instead of 77. It starts with important research files, then has chapters, and ends with less important research files.

  changes (notes on changes planned)
 Delhi Durbar Ebook ( excerpts from an Ebook)
 Final Timeline
 Sleeves, color (on uniform sleeves, color denotes rank)
0.1 chapter outlines
1 “Tick tick”
20 “Death of an Airship”
American submarines (notes)
Naphtha engine (excerpts on the real thing along with how I modified them)
The German War (I made it up, but I had to write a history of it to keep track)

You may not see it, but there are two spaces before “  changes”, and one space before each of the next three file names. The three file names after that begin with numbers. The last four begin with letters.

Here’s why it is done that way. The computer puts numbers (in numerical order) on the top of the stack. Letters (in alphabetical order) come next. However, a space comes above anything else.

If you want your most important files to be above your chapters, put a space in front of their titles. If you want one of them to be at the very top, put two spaces in front of that title. Once a file is no longer a priority, don’t throw it away. Put a “z” as the first letter in the title and it will drop all the way to the bottom.

“zTimeline” is an early attempt; I didn’t want it at the top where I might use it by accident, but I also didn’t want to lose track of my original thoughts on the order of in which things happened.

It’s amazing how simple this is in practice, and how well it works.


Symphony 82

Now Neil’s face was hard. “Mr. Burke,” he said, “I did not mention responsibility. I am not responsible for the way Jesse acts. I feel no guilt whatsoever. I just want to give him another chance. Not because I have done anything to feel bad about, and not because Jesse has done anything to deserve it. I just am not ready to give up on him yet.”

Alan Burke frowned and said, “Mr. Campbell, do you feel that way too?”

“Personally, yes. I always feel that way when a student is expelled. But professionally, it is my opinion that his expulsion is overdue. He is wasting his teachers’ time, my time, his own time, and he is destroying the atmosphere of his whole class. For the sake of his classmates, I still recommend expulsion.”

“Is there any teacher who wants to give him another chance?”

Tom Wright said nothing. Glen Ulrich said, “He is too much disruption in my class.” Fiona shook her head.

Then Neil found support from an unexpected quarter. Donna Clementi said softly, “I don’t want him back in my classroom unless he learns to behave himself, but if Neil is willing to take him on, I say let him. Who knows what will happen if someone believes in Jesse that much.”

The teachers left before the vote was taken. The bell for the beginning of school sounded before the school board emerged, so Neil did not hear until morning recess that they had agreed to let Jesse return after Christmas. He would come to school in the afternoon, attend Neil’s class only, and then go home.

But if he got into trouble one more time, he was out.

By noon, everyone in the school knew of the decision. As Carmen sat next to Neil and opened her lunch bag, she said, “You really know how to take on the world, don’t you?”

“You don’t approve?”

“I approve very much, but I have real doubts of whether it will work. I wouldn’t have taken him on.”

Neil shrugged. After a few bites, he said, “I don’t know if it will work, either, but I felt I had to try.”

# # #

There was a letter in Neil’s mailbox when he got home that night. It was from Dr. James Watkins at his old school. It was on plain paper and the typographic errors made it obvious that Dr. Watkins had typed it himself, probably at home.

Dear Neil,

I know that Tom Lewis intends to visit you. If he has, then you know already that Alice Hamilton is going to have a baby. Her father has resigned from the school board and I have spoken with David Hawkens, his replacement as chairman. Hawkens was reluctant to consider your return after your leave of absence ends, but I showed him that he had no legal recourse. He would like to speak to you personally and hear your assurances that your behavior was without blemish. I told him that his request was insulting, but he was adamant. If you are willing to comply, and I suggest that you do, he will be available during the Christmas holidays. You will be spending the holidays with your mother and grandfather, won’t you?

Whatever you decide, come and see me. We miss you here.


James Watkins

Neil lay back on his couch and read the letter twice more, trying to untangle its mixed messages. “Come home, Son, all is forgiven,” would be a welcome message if he had done anything to be for which to be forgiven. Six months ago he would have jumped at a chance to meet Hawkens, but time and experience — and pain — had stiffened his backbone. more tomorrow

Symphony 81

“That carries us up to yesterday,” Bill said. “That was the day he got in trouble with every one of his teachers.”

“We’ll hear from them in a moment. First, I want to know why we weren’t called sooner. This kind of continual disruption simply cannot be tolerated.”

Neil had pity for Bill as he tried to answer. It was easy to see that the boy had to go — unless you knew him. Unless you stopped to think that expulsion would solve Bill’s problems and the teacher’s problems, but it would do nothing for Jesse.

The teachers told their stories next. They spoke without passion, but the extent of Jesse’s rampage came through all the more clearly for that. The board members were appalled.

Alan Burke looked at the other board members. Elaine Sanders mouthed, “Expell him,” and Dr. Hardy nodded. Their silent agreement was clear to everyone in the room.

Burke said, “OK, let’s take a formal vote.”

“No!” Mrs. Herrera shouted suddenly. “You can’t expel my Jesus. He’s just a boy.”

Burke was unmoved. “Mrs. Herrera, we have explained the seriousness of Jesus’ actions to you every time we have met. You promised to get professional help for Jesus and for yourself. You promised to go to family counseling to learn how to control his behavior. You have not done so. You leave us little choice, and Jesus leaves us no choice at all.”

“Please, I have gone to counseling.”

“You told Mr. Campbell that you hadn’t.”

“We have. We just started, but we have gone. I’m trying to help him, but if I have to drive him to some other school and still drive myself to work, I’ll have even less time for him.”

“That is precisely what we have been trying to tell you for two years,” Burke replied coldly. “You are a little late understanding it. When did you start going to counseling?”

“We went Saturday.”

Elaine Sanders cut in, “You waited until after you knew Jesus was going to be expelled to start counseling? Didn’t you think that was a little late?”

Tears were flowing down Mrs. Herrera’s face. She whispered, “It’s hard for me. I want to be a good mother. It’s hard to go to a stranger to have him tell me that I’m not.”

Neil’s heart knotted up at her pain, but Jesse’s face was stone.

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Herrera,” Sanders continued, “but for me, that is just too little and too late.”

Neil said, “Wait.”

Burke looked surprised. “Yes, Mr. McCrae?”

Neil had no logical arguments to make; he simply had not been able to remain silent. Fumbling for the right words, he said, “I feel sure I know what your vote is going to be, and I can see, from your viewpoint, why you are willing to make that decision. But I would like to give Jesse a second chance.”

“This school gave Jesus Herrera a second chance in second grade and a third chance in third grade. You would be giving him a seventh or eighth chance.”

Neil stiffened his jaw against the words that threatened to tumble out. Still, some of the fire he felt inside showed in his tone of voice as he went on, “Nevertheless, I have not given him those chances. I, personally, would like to give him a second chance.”

“Mr. McCrae,” Burke continued patiently, “I realize that you may feel some responsibility for the boy because you are the one he yelled obscenities at. But believe me, after reviewing the case, I would vote for expulsion even if yesterday had never happened.” more tomorrow


458. Alpha-not-betical

I’m offering a look at the nuts and bolts of how I organize my writing, in four posts. 456 explains the system I used for years. 457 tells how I keep order while writing today. 458 gives the gory details on why this system works and 459 shows you how to keep track of your research. Take what you can use and ignore the rest.

I wrote my first six novels on a typewriter, keeping notes in a card file. If I had to go back to that, I wouldn’t write. Thank you Steve Jobs.

The way I work today depends on having multiple files in one folder, each with it’s own function, while making full use of copy-and-paste between the files. This requires placing all the files in a manner that makes sense visually, and for that you have to have a deep understanding of how a computer orders files. Buckle your seat belt, it’s going to be a nerdy ride.

For my most recent project, a steampunk novel titled The Cost of Empire, I have 77 files in one folder. From the beginning I had imposed an organizational structure on it, so I never lost anything. I explained the chapter organization last post and I will explain the research organization next post. For now I’m gong to concentrate on the structure behind the structure.

The following is based on Mac. I can’t guarantee that it transfers totally to another platform, but it should be at least close, and you can find any differences by experimentation.

The files in your folders are an order that is not quite alphabetical. The words go in alphabetical order, the numbers go in numerical order, and special characters like tilde and backslash have an order of their own. Mixed units go where their left-most letter or digit directs. That is, 13b would be placed among the numbers and ordered numerically, but B13 would be placed among the words and ordered alphabetically.

Bear with me. This is a powerful organizational tool you can learn in about twenty minutes. I have tried to write this out, but this is one case where words don’t work. So let’s look at examples instead. The following numbers occur in numerical order.

1, 2, 7, 11, 23, 2514

Now let’s put those same numbers into alphabetical order. We get:

1, 11, 2, 23, 2514, 7

If this doesn’t make sense, let’s replace each numeral with the corresponding letter of the alphabet.


There you have it, pure and proper alphabetical order.

Decades ago, I had a night job teaching spreadsheet to my fellow teachers. I would read a group of numerals such as the first example given here in random order, to be placed one per cell in vertical array. Then I would tell my teacher/students to let the spreadsheet put them in order. They would get what is given in the second example.

Once their minds were properly blown, I would show them where the program gave a choice of sorting numerically or alphabetically.

Alphabetical order takes all the words with A as the first letter, then all the words with B as the first letter, and so forth. Then it looks at the second letter in each word, then the third, and so forth. It also follows the rule that nothing comes before something, so that A comes before AA.

Numerical order takes all the numbers with one numeral to the left of the decimal place first, then the numbers with two numerals to the left of the decimal place, and so forth. It assumes that whole numbers always have an invisible decimal at the right. Then it puts things into 0, 1, 2 … 9 order, and it doesn’t care how many places lie to the right of the decimal point. That is, it assumes that all numeral groups to the right of the decimal point end in an infinite string of zeroes.

Am I wasting your time? Do they teach this in ninth grade now? I had to learn it by experimentation after I got my first computer in 1986.

All this is the key to the orderly arrangement of a complicated folder, and that is the key to my method of keeping track of both chapters and notes in one folder.

I number my chapters and use word titles for my research notes, then use the mixed system my computer provides to make it all easily retrievable. We’ll put this all together in the last post on Thursday.


By the way, if you know ASCII, forget it. This isn’t ASCII. It isn’t a pure system at all, but a mixed system designed to produce a result that is intuitive to humans, not to computers.


Symphony 80

Normally, Neil loved the morning, and this one was brisk, bright, and lovely. Thinking back to the cold gray December skies of Oregon, Neil realized for the first time how sunny and beautiful the Central Valley of California was. Yet for all that, Neil’s life had the flat, stale taste of defeat. He kept thinking of Alice, now quite lost, and of Jesse whom he was losing.

# # #

Even though it was only two days before Christmas, three of the five members of the board of education were able to come in an hour before school started on Friday morning to consider Jesse Herrera’s case. They met in Donna Clementi’s room because there was not enough room in Bill Campbell’s office.

The board members, Alan Burke, Dr. James Hardy, and Elaine Sanders, sat behind a table with Bill Campbell off at one side. Mrs. Herrera and Jesse sat at the other end of the table and all five of the teachers who dealt with sixth graders were there. Mrs. Herrera looked strained but composed and Jesse’s face held no expression at all.

Alan Burke opened the meeting. “We are here to act on a request from Mr. Campbell that Jesus Herrera be expelled from our school. Mrs. Herrera, were you told what this meeting was about?”

“Yes.” Her voice was small and pained. You could see that she had been crying.

“Expulsion is serious business, especially for a child as young as Jesus. It means that he can’t attend this school any more. You can petition to have him readmitted next year, but we are not obligated to readmit him. If he is expelled today, you will have to show proof that his behavior has changed before we will consider readmitting him. Do you understand all this?”


“If he is expelled, that does not mean he doesn’t have to go to school. You are obligated to see that your son is in school. State law requires it, so you will have to find another school for him to attend. No other school has to take him in; only the district where you live has that obligation. If he is expelled today, you will have to convince another district to admit him for the rest of this year. Do you understand?”

A tear escaped as she said, “Yes,” very softly.

Parent and child, Neil thought. Just like Alice and her father. You can’t separate them. Mrs. Herrera is on trial as much as Jesse. And it’s no fun to face a school board. I ought to know.

Next, Burke turned his attention to Jesse. “Jesus, do you know why you are here?”

Jesse nodded.

“No one wants to punish you, Jesus, but you have to conform to the school’s code of discipline. You can’t disrupt classes because when you do, your teachers can’t teach and your classmates can’t learn. Do you understand that?”

Jesse shrugged and gave them all a black look.

Doesn’t this mean anything to him? Neil asked himself.

Burke looked disgusted with Jesse. He said, “Jesus, this isn’t the first time we have seen you. We won’t be patient forever.”

Still the boy made no response.

“Mr. Campbell, give us a summary of how Jesus’ year has gone so far.”

Bill had a pile of detentions slips in front of him. He read them off quickly: talking in class, punching another student, disrupting, accusing a teacher of hating him when that teacher stopped him from bothering his classmates, stealing another students pencil and keeping the class from working while the teacher figured out who had stolen what from whom, disrupting, fighting on the playground, disrupting class, disrupting class, destroying another student’s lunch. It made a sadly impressive total. more tomorrow


457. I Don’t Write Novels Any More

I’m offering a look at the nuts and bolts of how I organize my writing, in four posts. 456 explains the system I used for years. 457 tells how I keep order while writing today. 458 gives the gory details on why this system works and 459 shows you how to keep track of your research. Take what you can use and ignore the rest.

The actual writing of novels before computers was a royal pain in a dozen ways, but there were a few advantages. The rough drafts — 300 to 500 sheets of actual paper — could be carried around, rummaged through, and sorted as needed. Several times I brought a long 1 x 12 from the wood shop as a temporary table to hold a row of single chapter stacks.

In the mid-eighties I quit writing full time and went to work as a teacher. I could finally afford a computer, and I never looked back. Symphony in a Minor Key and Raven’s Run, the first two novels I wrote on a computer, each ended up with a single file 80,000 to 100,000 words long. Finding something in that mass worked well enough if I remembered which page it was on, or if what I wanted contained a distinctive word cluster that allowed me to use the find function. You’d be surprised how often neither worked and I was left scrolling, scrolling, scrolling.

Cyan was written half on typewriter, decades ago, and half on computer. I used word recognition software to convert the first half to digital. All in all, Cyan called out the best and worst in both systems.

When I recently sat down to write The Cost of Empire, it was clearly time to reinvent and streamline my process.

First of all, there was the issue of manuscript length, and how to keep it under control. I have no trouble with writing too much; I learned the trade when novels were fifty to sixty thousand words long. That wouldn’t even be publishable today. I tend to write tersely and reach the last page under modern length requirements. It struck me that it would be a lot easier to correct that as I went along, if I knew where I stood on a daily basis.

For The Cost of Empire, I set a goal of 100,000 words. I divided that into twenty chapters of 5000 words each. That seemed a good chapter length for a novel that progressed in a linear fashion with a single viewpoint character and almost no flashbacks. It set a stately pace.

Another novel, just begun, has multiple viewpoints, confused chronology, and a ton of explanatory matter dropped in a word here and a sentence there. It seems to be all transitions. For that novel I have chosen 1000 word chapters, and lots of them.

I use the chapter break-down to keep from having to scroll through long chunks of text. I don’t write novels any more; I write chapters, and copy them into a single file only when the writing is done. Each chapter gets its own file, named (number)(space)(title in quotes). Here are the first four chapters from The Cost of Empire:

1 “Tick, tick”
2 “Unit A”
3 – 6
3 “First Mission”
3.1 rewrite
4 “Field of Fire”

When I began to write, I had placed a few numbered, blank files to receive the first few chapters, and had a dozen files of notes which I will explain two posts from now, on January 31. Chapter one went fairly smoothly, with a rough draft finished in a couple of days. The first draft of chapter two followed, also fairly quickly.

After that point, things were less clear in my head. The next chunk of writing stretched out with no obvious breaking points, and went through several rough re-writes. That piece of writing finally spanned pieces of several chapters. Now the value of the multi-file system came in to play. I simply re-titled that chunk of writing 3 – 6 and left it in place. I moved on to 3 “First Mission” and started writing again, copying and pasting large and small chunks of 3 – 6 as needed.

Note: copying, not cutting. 3 -6 is still unchanged today; nothing in it was ever lost, even though everything in it eventually found its way to a “real” chapter in the final book.

At first, there were days of research, days of invention, and days of writing. Or more likely, two hours of research, fourteen minutes of inspired writing, forty minutes of planning, thirty-two minutes of organization, twenty minutes of writing something to fill in a hole left in a previous chapter, and so forth.

Later in the process, I sat down every day and wrote, starting where I had left off the day before, and proceeding in a reasonably linear fashion. That is, I did what non-writers think writers always do.

Initially, that was not possible. I was inventing my character, inventing the plot, and inventing the world everything took place in — all at once. That process never stopped, but the amount of invention went down and the amount of linear writing went up all through the production of the book.

Even when I was a beginning writer following Whitney’s procedure, I didn’t do planning followed by writing. They always went on as simultaneous, semi-independent tracks.

There were a number of plot complications in 3 “First Mission” which had to be worked out. It took several iterations. I knew what I needed to do, I did it, and I didn’t like the results. This happens; it’s just part of the process. Sometimes you have a plan, you execute it, and the result just lies there, smelling like something that dropped out of a cow.

That, by the way, is the difference between an experienced writer and a beginner. The experienced writer recognizes the smell — from past experience — and reaches for his scoop shovel.

I copied (not cut!) out a big chunk and placed it into 3.1 rewrite. I took a new tack on some tricky points and wrote an alternative version. Again, this is where the multi-file system shone. I brought 3 “First Mission” up to standards, but kept the alternatives filed as 3.1 rewrite, for future reference.

I wrote two versions of chapter 7 because it was a critical introduction of a character that would be an important adjunct to my main character, and it had to be just right. A sizable chunk of chapter 13 was heading the wrong way and got pulled. It was titled 13.1 Pulled, but it was retained so that its content could be mined, if need be.

When I got to chapter 20 all was done. I was only seven or eight percent short of my goal length because I had kept track of my chapter lengths. I needed an Epilog. To keep it immediately after the last chapter in the folder, I titled it 20.1 Epilog. I could have called it 21, but that would have implied it was a chapter, and it was quite short.

I also needed for some ancillary material to stay with the chapters, so they were titled 0.1 chapter outlines and 0.2 introduction. That put them in order just before chapter one.

The really nerdy stuff comes next post.


Symphony 79

“Actually it’s good news and bad news. The bad news is that Alice Hamilton is pregnant . . .”

Neil sat bolt upright, feeling as if someone had hit him in the stomach.

” . . . and the good news is that she is only about four months gone.”

Neil sank back again and heaved a heavy sigh. He shook his head and pantomimed counting on his fingers. He had been gone from Oregon since June; almost seven months. “Tom,” he said, “don’t ever do that to me again. All I need is to be called up on a paternity suit for someone else’s baby!”

Tom said, imitating a prosecuting attorney, “Where were you on the night of the twenty-sixth of July?”

Neil laughed. “Why, I was forty miles north of Yosemite Park, sleeping with a black bear. You can subpoena her if you want to.”

Fear and relief in rapid succession had made him giddy for a moment, but bitterness was quick to return. He said, “Alice was one screwed up girl. I have to blame her father for most of it. He gave her her way in everything that he should not have had, but wouldn’t let her live her own life when she should have. I should feel sorry for her, but . . . I can’t.”

“The result,” Tom added, “is that she won’t even graduate from high school. Her father pulled her out and sent her to live with an aunt somewhere. He also resigned from the school board.”

Neil was horrified. “You mean to tell me that he brought her to this, and now he’s abandoning her? This isn’t the nineteen-fifties. She doesn’t have to give up her education just because she’s pregnant.”

“I thought you were happy to see her in trouble,” Tom observed with quiet amusement.

“I was . . . I . . . ” Neil gave up talking. His thoughts were rushing too fast and his feelings were too mixed for him to be coherent. He shook his head, disgusted with Alice, disgusted with her father. Disgusted with the whole situation.

“She doesn’t deserve this,” Neil said finally.

“Actually,” Tom observed, “this is exactly what she deserves. Poetic justice, and all that.”

“No. It wasn’t her fault. Not entirely.”

“I never bought that argument,” Tom said. “You can push blame all the way back to Adam if you blame parents for what a child becomes. People have to take responsibility for their own actions. I do. You do. Let Alice take her responsibility, too. Hell, of all people, you shouldn’t be standing up for her.”

Neil rose to pace around the cramped apartment. Tom went to refresh his drink, then went on to the bathroom. When he came back, he said, “Are you okay now?”

“No. I’m not okay. All I can think of is what Alice looked like when she came to me in tears begging me to tutor her. One part of me feels for her pain — it was real, you know — and imagines how lost and abandoned she must feel now. Then the other part of me wants to hunt her up and yell at her, ‘See! See what you get!'”

Tom shook his head in amazement. “You never learn, do you? The eternal patsy. Neil, you had better start listening to your dark angel. He has more sense than you do.”

# # #

Neil saw Tom off the next morning, congratulating himself that his head was clear. Tom was feeling the after effects of the rum he had drunk last night. Neil worried as he watched him pull out. Although driving with that kind of headache was nearly as bad as driving drunk, Neil had not been able to convince Tom to delay his trip for a few hours. more Monday