Monthly Archives: May 2016

Death Sentence: or, Can you know too much grammar?


I seem to spend as much time unlearning bad habits as I do trying to teach myself new ones. So, I am currently reading one of my many, many ‘How to Write’ books. This one is more specific than usual How to Write a Sentence by the erudite Professor Stanley Fish. My only problem with the prof is his tendency to run down The Elements of Style by Strunk and White (which just so happens to also be in my collection).



I have two shelves in a bookcase dedicated to books about writing or language or linguistics.Dictionaries and other word compendiums feature strongly. I obsess about grammar and fear that I am actually a terrible grammarian. When I was growing up, Queensland schools stopped teaching proper grammar after the third year of primary school. We never got past learning about nouns, verbs and adjectives, and I was never taught about dangling participles and articles and tenses and what a gerund was. I had to wait until I was at university doing my creative writing course before I got the chance to really lean about grammar.

I managed to get the best marks for my two grammar/linguistic subjects. And yet I still collect grammar books.

Woe is I.jpg

While I am writing, I try very hard to write correct sentences. But now that I am in the throes of editing, my obsession is overwhelming me.



As you can see, I’m not exaggerating my collection – with the doubling up on the shelves due to lack of space.


The grammar books and ‘how to write’ books are just the tip of my reference collection, but are probably just as important to me as my collection of fairy tales, myths, and legends from all over the world.

And this brings me to the heart of the question I posed in the title of this blog post. Can you actually know too much? Maybe I should worry less about the clarity of my grammar and just get on the story telling? But how can anyone build an inspiring structure with poor bricks and mortar?


Filed under The Writing Life, Uncategorized

Jenny: one of the poem’s buried with Elizabeth Siddal and exhumed by Dante Gabriel Rosetti

“Vengeance of Jenny’s case! Fie on her! Never name her, child!”—Mrs. Quickly


Rosetti’s marriage portrait of Elizabeth Siddal

Lazy laughing languid Jenny,
Fond of a kiss and fond of a guinea,
Whose head upon my knee to-night
Rests for a while, as if grown light
With all our dances and the sound
To which the wild tunes spun you round:
Fair Jenny mine, the thoughtless queen
Of kisses which the blush between
Could hardly make much daintier;
Whose eyes are as blue skies, whose hair
Is countless gold incomparable:
Fresh flower, scarce touched with signs that tell
Of Love’s exuberant hotbed:—Nay,
Poor flower left torn since yesterday
Until to-morrow leave you bare;
Poor handful of bright spring-water
Flung in the whirlpool’s shrieking face;
Poor shameful Jenny, full of grace
Thus with your head upon my knee;—
Whose person or whose purse may be
The lodestar of your reverie?
This room of yours, my Jenny, looks
A change from mine so full of books,
Whose serried ranks hold fast, forsooth,
So many captive hours of youth,—
The hours they thieve from day and night
To make one’s cherished work come right,
And leave it wrong for all their theft,
Even as to-night my work has left:
Until I vowed that since my brain
And eyes of dancing seemed so fain,
My feet should have some dancing too:—
And thus it was I met with you.
Well, I suppose ’twas hard to part,
For here I am. And now, sweetheart,
You seem too tired to get to bed.
It was a careless life I led
When rooms like this were scarce so strange
Not long ago. What breeds the change,—
The many aims or the few years?
Because to-night it all appears
Something I do not know again.
The cloud’s not danced out of my brain,—
The cloud that made it turn and swim
While hour by hour the books grew dim.
Why, Jenny, as I watch you there,—
For all your wealth of loosened hair,
Your silk ungirdled and unlac’d
And warm sweets open to the waist,
All golden in the lamplight’s gleam,—
You know not what a book you seem,
Half-read by lightning in a dream!
How should you know, my Jenny? Nay,
And I should be ashamed to say:—
Poor beauty, so well worth a kiss!
But while my thought runs on like this
With wasteful whims more than enough,
I wonder what you’re thinking of.
If of myself you think at all,
What is the thought?—conjectural
On sorry matters best unsolved?—
Or inly is each grace revolved
To fit me with a lure?—or (sad
To think!) perhaps you’re merely glad
That I’m not drunk or ruffianly
And let you rest upon my knee.
For sometimes, were the truth confess’d,
You’re thankful for a little rest,—
Glad from the crush to rest within,
From the heart-sickness and the din
Where envy’s voice at virtue’s pitch
Mocks you because your gown is rich;
And from the pale girl’s dumb rebuke,
Whose ill-clad grace and toil-worn look
Proclaim the strength that keeps her weak,
And other nights than yours bespeak;
And from the wise unchildish elf,
To schoolmate lesser than himself
Pointing you out, what thing you are:—
Yes, from the daily jeer and jar,
From shame and shame’s outbraving too,
Is rest not sometimes sweet to you?—
But most from the hatefulness of man
Who spares not to end what he began,
Whose acts are ill and his speech ill,
Who, having used you at his will,
Thrusts you aside, as when I dine
I serve the dishes and the wine.
Well, handsome Jenny mine, sit up:
I’ve filled our glasses, let us sup,
And do not let me think of you,
Lest shame of yours suffice for two.
What, still so tired? Well, well then, keep
Your head there, so you do not sleep;
But that the weariness may pass
And leave you merry, take this glass.
Ah! lazy lily hand, more bless’d
If ne’er in rings it had been dress’d
Nor ever by a glove conceal’d!
Behold the lilies of the field,
They toil not neither do they spin;
(So doth the ancient text begin,—
Not of such rest as one of these
Can share.) Another rest and ease.
Along each summer-sated path
From its new lord the garden hath,
Than that whose spring in blessings ran
Which praised the bounteous husbandman,
Ere yet, in days of hankering breath,
The lilies sickened unto death.
What, Jenny, are your lilies dead?
Aye, and the snow-white leaves are spread
Like winter on the garden-bed.
But you had roses left in May,—
They were not gone too. Jenny, nay,
But must your roses die, and those
Their purfled buds that should unclose?
Even so; the leaves are curled apart,
Still red as from the broken heart,
And here’s the naked stem of thorns.
Nay, nay mere words. Here nothing warns
As yet of winter. Sickness here
Or want alone could waken fear,—
Nothing but passion wrings a tear.
Except when there may rise unsought
Haply at times a passing thought
Of the old days which seem to be
Much older than any history
That is written in any book;
When she would lie in fields and look
Along the ground through the blown grass,
And wonder where the city was,
Far out of sight, whose broil and bale
They told her then for a child’s tale.
Jenny, you know the city now,
A child can tell the tale there, how
Some things which are not yet enroll’d
In market-lists are bought and sold
Even till the early Sunday light,
When Saturday night is market-night
Everywhere, be it dry or wet,
And market-night in the Haymarket.
Our learned London children know,
Poor Jenny, all your pride and woe;
Have seen your lifted silken skirt
Advertise dainties through the dirt;
Have seen your coach-wheels splash rebuke
On virtue; and have learned your look
When, wealth and health slipped past, you stare
Along the streets alone, and there,
Round the long park, across the bridge,
The cold lamps at the pavement’s edge
Wind on together and apart,
A fiery serpent for your heart.
Let the thoughts pass, an empty cloud!
Suppose I were to think aloud,—
What if to her all this were said?
Why, as a volume seldom read
Being opened halfway shuts again,
So might the pages of her brain
Be parted at such words, and thence
Close back upon the dusty sense.
For is there hue or shape defin’d
In Jenny’s desecrated mind,
Where all contagious currents meet,
A Lethe of the middle street?
Nay, it reflects not any face,
Nor sound is in its sluggish pace,
But as they coil those eddies clot,
And night and day remembers not.
Why, Jenny, you’re asleep at last!—
Asleep, poor Jenny, hard and fast,—
So young and soft and tired; so fair,
With chin thus nestled in your hair,
Mouth quiet, eyelids almost blue
As if some sky of dreams shone through!
Just as another woman sleeps!
Enough to throw one’s thoughts in heaps
Of doubt and horror,—what to say
Or think,—this awful secret sway,
The potter’s power over the clay!
Of the same lump (it has been said)
For honour and dishonour made,
Two sister vessels. Here is one.
My cousin Nell is fond of fun,
And fond of dress, and change, and praise,
So mere a woman in her ways:
And if her sweet eyes rich in youth
Are like her lips that tell the truth,
My cousin Nell is fond of love.
And she’s the girl I’m proudest of.
Who does not prize her, guard her well?
The love of change, in cousin Nell,
Shall find the best and hold it dear:
The unconquered mirth turn quieter
Not through her own, through others’ woe:
The conscious pride of beauty glow
Beside another’s pride in her,
One little part of all they share.
For Love himself shall ripen these
In a kind of soil to just increase
Through years of fertilizing peace.
Of the same lump (as it is said)
For honour and dishonour made,
Two sister vessels. Here is one.
It makes a goblin of the sun.
So pure,—so fall’n! How dare to think
Of the first common kindred link?
Yet, Jenny, till the world shall burn
It seems that all things take their turn;
And who shall say but this fair tree
May need, in changes that may be,
Your children’s children’s charity?
Scorned then, no doubt, as you are scorn’d!
Shall no man hold his pride forewarn’d
Till in the end, the Day of Days,
At Judgement, one of his own race,
As frail and lost as you, shall rise,—
His daughter, with his mother’s eyes?
How Jenny’s clock ticks on the shelf!
Might not the dial scorn itself
That has such hours to register?
Yet as to me, even so to her
Are golden sun and silver moon,
In daily largesse of earth’s boon,
Counted for life-coins to one tune.
And if, as blindfold fates are toss’d,
Through some one man this life be lost,
Shall soul not somehow pray for soul?
Fair shines the gilded aureole
In which our highest painters place
Some living woman’s simple face.
And the stilled features thus descried
As Jenny’s long throat droops aside,—
The shadows where the cheeks are thin,
And pure wide curve from ear to chin,—
Whit Raffael’s, Leonardo’s hand
To show them to men’s souls, might stand,
Whole ages long, the whole world through,
For preachings of what God can do.
What has man done here? How atone,
Great God, for this which man has done?
And for the body and soul which by
Man’s pitiless doom must now comply
With lifelong hell, what lullaby
Of sweet forgetful second birth
Remains? All dark. No sign on earth
What measure of God’s rest endows
The many mansions of his house.
If but a woman’s heart might see
Such erring heart unerringly
For once! But that can never be.
Like a rose shut in a book
In which pure women may not look,
For its base pages claim control
To crush the flower within the soul;
Where through each dead rose-leaf that clings,
Pale as transparent psyche-wings,
To the vile text, are traced such things
As might make lady’s cheek indeed
More than a living rose to read;
So nought save foolish foulness may
Watch with hard eyes the sure decay;
And so the life-blood of this rose,
Puddled with shameful knowledge, flows
Through leaves no chaste hand may unclose:
Yet still it keeps such faded show
Of when ’twas gathered long ago,
That the crushed petals’ lovely grain,
The sweetness of the sanguine stain,
Seen of a woman’s eyes, must make
Her pitiful heart, so prone to ache,
Love roses better for its sake:—
Only that this can never be:—
Even so unto her sex is she.
Yet, Jenny, looking long at you,
The woman almost fades from view.
A cipher of man’s changeless sum
Of lust, past, present, and to come,
Is left. A riddle that one shrinks
To challenge from the scornful sphinx.
Like a toad within a stone
Seated while Time crumbles on;
Which sits there since the earth was curs’d
For Man’s transgression at the first;
Which, living through all centuries,
Not once has seen the sun arise;
Whose life, to its cold circle charmed,
The earth’s whole summers have not warmed;
Which always—whitherso the stone
Be flung—sits there, deaf, blind, alone;—
Aye, and shall not be driven out
Till that which shuts him round about
Break at the very Master’s stroke,
And the dust thereof vanish as smoke,
And the seed of Man vanish as dust:—
Even so within this world is Lust.
Come, come, what use in thoughts like this?
Poor little Jenny, good to kiss,—
You’d not believe by what strange roads
Thought travels, when your beauty goads
A man to-night to think of toads!
Jenny, wake up. . . . Why, there’s the dawn!
And there’s an early waggon drawn
To market, and some sheep that jog
Bleating before a barking dog;
And the old streets come peering through
Another night that London knew;
And all as ghostlike as the lamps.
So on the wings of day decamps
My last night’s frolic. Glooms begin
To shiver off as lights creep in
Past the gauze curtains half drawn-to,
And the lamp’s doubled shade grows blue,—
Your lamp, my Jenny, kept alight,
Like a wise virgin’s, all one night!
And in the alcove coolly spread
Glimmers with dawn your empty bed;
And yonder your fair face I see
Reflected lying on my knee,
Where teems with first foreshadowings
Your pier-glass scrawled with diamond rings:
And on your bosom all night worn
Yesterday’s rose now droops forlorn,
But dies not yet this summer morn.
And now without, as if some word
Had called upon them that they heard,
The London sparrows far and nigh
Clamour together suddenly;
And Jenny’s cage-bird grown awake
Here in their song his part must take,
Because here too the day doth break.
And somehow in myself the dawn
Among stirred clouds and veils withdrawn
Strikes greyly on her. Let her sleep.
But will it wake her if I heap
These cushions thus beneath her head
Where my knee was? No,—there’s your bed,
My Jenny, while you dream. And there
I lay among your golden hair
Perhaps the subject of your dreams,
These golden coins.
For still one deems
That Jenny’s flattering sleep confers
New magic on the magic purse,—
Grim web, how clogged with shrivelled flies!
Between the threads fine fumes arise
And shape their pictures in the brain.
There roll no streets in glare and rain,
Nor flagrant man-swine whets his tusk;
But delicately sighs in musk
The homage of the dim boudoir;
Or like a palpitating star
Thrilled into song, the opera-night
Breathes faint in the quick pulse of light;
Or at the carriage-window shine
Rich wares for choice; or, free to dine,
Whirls through its hour of health (divine
For her) the concourse of the Park.
And though in the discounted dark
Her functions there and here are one,
Beneath the lamps and in the sun
There reigns at least the acknowledged belle
Apparelled beyond parallel.
Ah Jenny, yes, we know your dreams.
For even the Paphian Venus seems,
A goddess o’er the realms of love,
When silver-shrined in shadowy grove:
Aye, or let offerings nicely placed
But hide Priapus to the waist,
And whoso looks on him shall see
An eligible deity.
Why, Jenny, waking here alone
May help you to remember one,
Though all the memory’s long outworn
Of many a double-pillowed morn.
I think I see you when you wake,
And rub your eyes for me, and shake
My gold, in rising, from your hair,
A Danaë for a moment there.
Jenny, my love rang true! for still
Love at first sight is vague, until
That tinkling makes him audible.
And must I mock you to the last,
Ashamed of my own shame,—aghast
Because some thoughts not born amiss
Rose at a poor fair face like this?
Well, of such thoughts so much I know:
In my life, as in hers, they show,
By a far gleam which I may near,
A dark path I can strive to clear.
Only one kiss. Good-bye, my dear.

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Filed under 1860, Historical Personage, History, Poetry, Uncategorized, Victorian Era

Illustration Friday: Smoke

A beautiful illustration of a lady in a bustle skirt … burning secrets.

Kathleen Jennings

Illustration Friday: Smoke

A little silhouette of a lady burning secrets. I’m quite happy with how the stripes turned out.

Smoke GIF

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Lynne’s Eleven Rules for Life

Rule 1: Don’t wait for the right time. The right time never comes.


Rule 2: Always soak the saucepans as soon as you have emptied them (especially mashed potatoes).


Rule 3: Whenever a builder quotes a monetary amount or time for any project, double it and you’ll be closer to the truth. Builders are optimists.


Rule 4: Carry enough change for a call phone, even if you have a mobile phone.


Rule 5: There is no such thing as a bad day at the beach.

Addendum to rule 5: Know where your towel is (especially if the beach is crowded).


Rule 6: Tictacs are a good tactic. Or any kind of peppermints are your friends.


Rule 7: For every cup of coffee drink a glass of water.


Rule 8: Only way to be a writer to sit down and write.


Rule 9:Never be embarrassed to ask a question.


Rule 10: Always get the young man’s number.


Rule 11: Never say ‘no’ to free food when you are a university student.

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Titles and How to Pick One…

Pile of Books.jpg

There are fashions in titles, just like everything else.

The classic book title takes the pattern of ‘(The) **** of (the) ****’. I can look over to my bookcase and see four such titles in that style: ‘The Dolphins of Pern’, ‘The Wheel of Time’, ‘The Mystery of the Ruby Glasses’, & ‘The Sword of Shanarra’. This could mean that this style is overdone, but it just means that it *is* a classic type. It works, so don’t knock it. Oh, and the ‘of’ may be an ‘and’ in some titles of this type, like ‘The Power and the Passion’.

Then there is the clean and simple use of a one word title. Gregory Maguire favours this type: ‘Lost’, ‘Wicked’. So do many other authors. It has the advantage that you can use words that have multiple meanings, and you don’t give away anything major of the plot. A single word title is strong and powerful. The addition of a ‘The’ in front of a single word doesn’t weaken the effect, like in ‘The Awakening’ or ‘The Bribe’. Next level is adding a modifier, like an adjective, e.g. ‘The Little Country’ or ‘The King’s Buckaneer’.

Quotes are often a good source of titles. ‘Band of Brothers’ is from Shakespeare…you can’t go wrong with Shakespeare as he covered *everything* about the human condition in his body of work. Personally, I like to use bits from old sayings: ‘Rosemary for Remembrance’, ‘Stuff and Nonsense’. You can use lyrics from songs, anything that gives your title meaning. You can also twist a saying, paticularly if your book is a parody..’Wyrd Sisters’ by Terry Pratchett is an example. The cleverer the twist, and the more appropriate to your novel, can make this style of title a zinger.

Lately, there has been a flourish of longer titles. ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time’ is an excellent example of this type. I avoid this style myself, but when it works it works well. The Victorians loved long titles, and they also liked to add a comment to the title. If you are writing Steam Punk or historical novels, this style is very suitable.

What a writer wants from a title is a cluster of words that are memorable. Something that encompasses the theme of the work, without giving too much away. Some people like to put titles on their chapter headings (guilty). Titles are important, as a weak title can drive away readers before they even get to read the main text.

Some writers have a natural knack at picking a good title. If you know someone like this, cultivate their friendship. (Joke, joke.) However, you can work at your title to improve it, just like anything else. Make a huge list of titles, and cull down to the one you like. Use a working title, and then change it when something more appropriate takes your fancy. Buy book of quotations, or start looking up lyrics on the internet.

If you are getting too frustrated with finding a title, just leave it for a while. Come back when you are calm and relaxed. Reread your piece. Sometimes, the title will be hidden in the very words in your story.

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Filed under Titles, Uncategorized, writing

Naming your Characters

Professor Alice

I am one of those people who spend a lot of time choosing a name for a character. I think a name aids in defining a character, and a good name is halfway to helping your readers to visualise them physically and possibly give them insights into the character’s personality.


I’m certainly not the only writer to feel this way. And it is no surprise that my own favourite writers are probably of the same mind. Terry Pratchett and Diana Wynne Jones were very clever at giving their characters the perfect name, like Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg or Sophie Hatter and Howl. Sometimes an author will even make the character’s name an integral part of the plot, like Michael Gerard Bauer’s Don’t Call Me Ishmael. So, I thought it might be interesting to dissect the process as I see it.


When I first start thinking about a story, who the characters are is always an important part of my plotting process. After all, I will want the action to move forward in a specific way, and so I require protagonists and antagonists who will act and react in a certain way, and the best way to achieve that goal is to tailor my characters to the plot. In this manner, this preliminary characterisation is of vital importance to my plot. If I need a weak character who is easily swayed, I am not going to place them in a profession that requires lots of decisions on a daily basis; conversely, a strong character will not be bullied by a spouse or boss – in fact I would probably have them running their own business. And this elementary character sketch influences their physical appearance, as I wouldn’t make a farmer weak and pale (unless he or she was ill as part of my plot).


As the example, let’s look at the protagonist of my current Work-in-Progress (WiP). I wanted a character living in the Victorian era who would be at odds with the intensely dominating patriarchal culture that existed in the scientific community. This automatically made her a female character.  To make her situation even worse, I made her very young, so that she didn’t even have the innate respect given to an adult. She had to come from a background where a scientific education would have been made available to her, so she had to be from a noble family (which annoyed me, as I am a Republican, but there you go).


It is at this point I will start thinking about a name.


The very first thing I did was go to the Behind the Name website, to see if they had a list of Victorian names. They don’t. However, a quick scan of the internet gave me lists of the most popular names for each year. I was drawn to the name ‘Alice’, since everyone knows Alice from Wonderland. Better yet, it isn’t that uncommon day in this era, which meant it wouldn’t grate on modern ears as too strange. A little more research provided the information that Alice was a popular name in the Victorian era due to Princess Alice, Queen Victoria’s daughter, who was a patron of women’s causes and it basically meant ‘noble’ – BINGO!  I had her first name.


As well, I liked the contrast of a practical, scientist Alice with the whimsy of the Wonderland Alice. And since most people knew of Lewis’s Alice, I could use references to Wonderland to give the character further resonance. (I didn’t end up exploiting that aspect as much as I first thought.)


Her surname came from my earliest idea of what her personality should be like.  Saint Bruno of Cologne is a saint celebrated for his eloquence, his intellectual pursuits and his love of teaching, all attributes which I wanted my Alice to share – so her surname became Saint de Cologne (many of the French aristocracy had fled to England or married into the English blue bloods – and this gave me to opportunity of giving her a French chaperone based on another famous female scholar). I made her minor nobility, so she became Lady Alice. As I wanted her to ‘sound’ posh, I also blessed her with Elizabeth for a middle name (and as a sly way of honouring my eldest daughter, whose middle name is Beth and to honour my other daughter, I gave her Scottish ancestors).


Then I made her a Professor , because she had to be an unarguable scientific genius – and a bit of research turned up the fact that an earned title takes precedence over an inherited title – so if a princess was to become a doctor she would be Doctor Princess Suzanne. I made her a professor even though no university in England would matriculate a woman let alone award her with a teaching position in the Victorian era. However, European universities were less bigoted and were inclined to offer academic honours to rich women they hoped would give funds their institutions. However, I wanted my readers to know that Alice had earned her academic credentials, so I stuck Scientiæ Baccalaureus (Starred First Ord.), Doctor of Divinity in Horticulture behind her name. These are not real degrees … but in my alternate timeline they exist.


So now I had my name for my main protagonist: Professor Lady Alice Elizabeth Saint de Cologne, Scientiæ Baccalaureus (Starred First Ord.), Doctor of Divinity in Horticulture (at sixteen), child prodigy, polymath, inventor, explorer and adventuress, and artist of the Botanical Sciences. In that name I hoped to encapsulate a fair proportion of her history and personality.


Now, none of this research was necessary. I could have plucked a name that sounded just as good, with a lot less effort. However, this careful construction of Alice’s name gave me the chance to get to know her while I was still in the early planning stages of her story. It helped me think about what her personality had to be like to be the person I needed for my plot. This process helps me form a very clear picture of her ‘voice’, and makes it easier to write her actions.


And her name also gave me a fairly good idea of what she had to look like. With Scottish ancestry, there was a good chance she would be a redhead. She would be taller than the average woman, for she would never have suffered from malnutrition. She wasn’t afraid to get her hands dirty, and so she was probably athletic in build with beautiful strong hands. Her French connection gave her a stylish beauty even when she neglected to dress fashionably.


See how it goes with me? If Alice had been a Millicent FitzWindsor, she would have been and looked very differently in my imagination.


Of course, I don’t expect any other writer to have the same process for naming their characters. It is rather complicated. But this works for me … and it might work for someone else.

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Filed under Characterization, Steampunk Writer, The Writing Life, Uncategorized, writing, Writing Style