Swinging the Lead

By Philip K Allan

Ilfracombe is a charming little port on the North Devon coast in England. Close to its bustling harbour is the base of the local scuba diving club, who have a large and active body of members. Many are keen wreck divers, and the busy but treacherous waters off Illfracombe provide rich pickings for their amusement. Over the centuries, numerous ships have foundered on this coastline, as the dive club’s bar bears witness. It is an Aladdin’s cave of maritime artefacts. Portholes and valves, ships telegraphs and wheels stud the walls, while smaller items crowd the window sills. In one corner, near to the back, are a number of dull grey conical objects. They generally have a round depression in the bottom, and a hole through where a line would once have been. In spite of their modest size, they can catch out the unwary who idly pick them up. Made of solid lead, that are surprisingly heavy – generally about fourteen pounds. These are ships’ leads that have been lost over the years by vessels probing their way in and out of the harbour.

Read the full article at Philip K Allan’s website.

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So You Want to Have a War?

By Django Wexler

I am, I have to admit, a war buff. I read military histories for fun, the kind with fold-out maps covered in little colored arrows and notations like “Kollowrath (40,000)”. As I am also a fantasy novelist, the nature of war in fantasy fiction has always been fascinating to me.

And there is a lot of war in fantasy. Starting with Tolkien, it’s become practically obligatory that the epic fantasy saga, somewhere around the middle of book three, feature an Epic Confrontation Between Good and Evil with a Cast of Thousands. Various allies, painfully recruited over the course of the hero’s journey, turn up to lend a hand at the Final Battle. Various villains are dispatched, hapless orcs or equivalent humanoids are mowed down by the score, and just when things seem bleakest Evil is defeated forever. A beloved secondary character or two bites the dust, and someone gets to make a Heroic Sacrifice. Afterward, we may be treated to a scene where the hero roams a battlefield strewn with corpses, or visits the injured to bring home the horrors of combat. You know, war, right?

Back before I wrote fantasy myself, my wargamer friends and I used to snicker a bit at this. Most of the fantasy authors wouldn’t know a halberd from a half-pike, and their descriptions of battles were usually heavy on bold strokes and dramatic confrontations and light on tactics and the important of proper reconnaissance. I wouldn’t want to be a poor foot-slogger in either army, given the rate at which they tend to be chewed up by either the hero and his friends or some villain demonstrating the full extent of his power.

(To get roughly the same effect, find some friends who are computer professionals and take them to see any Hollywood movie featuring “hacking” and explosions.)

Now that I’ve taken up the pen myself, I have a better understanding of how strict realism sometimes has to give way to dramatic necessity, and that the reading public probably isn’t interested in the details of orc logistical and latrine arrangements. But I still found that a lot of the fantasy wars were still … well … bad. Bad from a realism point of view, certainly, but also from a dramatic or a story point of view. I found myself flipping past battle scenes to get back to the good stuff. But this wasn’t always true — some authors can write a battle that will knock your socks (or padded leather greaves) off — so I sat down to think about why.

Read the full article at A Dribble of Ink.

Livestreamed Readings of Homefront at My Patreon!

Hey there! Did you know I’m doing livestreamed readings of my Toy Soldier Saga novella Homefront for my Patreon crew?  Here’s the first episode to give you an idea of what to expect:

I’m doing this every night (except Thursday, and when there’s unexpected interruptions) for all Patrons at the Ordinary Seaman or higher level (just $2+!) I’m also archiving the videos to be available for watching later, and recording an audio track of the readings, which are available to you on the unique audio RSS feed provided on the right hand side of the page!

Have you seen my new Patreon video yet?

I’m about halfway through, but it won’t take you long to catch up if you sign aboard now! Homefront is also available as a pdf for all my Patreon crew.  Support the Toy Soldier Saga!

Scott and Scurvy

I took a class yesterday with Django Wexler on writing flintlock fantasy (thank you, Cat Rambo, for providing these excellent classes!), and I realized that about 70 percent of what I write is flintlock fantasy. So I’ll do a post on that sometime. In the meantime, this article was recommended as a fascinating study in how the British Navy discovered the cure for scurvy, and due to technological developments, lost it again — and why.

Recently I have been re-reading one of my favorite books, The Worst Journey in the World, an account of Robert Falcon Scott’s 1911 expedition to the South Pole. I can’t do the book justice in a summary, other than recommend that you drop everything and read it, but there is one detail that particularly baffled me the first time through, and that I resolved to understand better once I could stand to put the book down long enough.

Writing about the first winter the men spent on the ice, Cherry-Garrard casually mentions an astonishing lecture on scurvy by one of the expedition’s doctors:

Atkinson inclined to Almroth Wright’s theory that scurvy is due to an acid intoxication of the blood caused by bacteria…
There was little scurvy in Nelson’s days; but the reason is not clear, since, according to modern research, lime-juice only helps to prevent it. We had, at Cape Evans, a salt of sodium to be used to alkalize the blood as an experiment, if necessity arose. Darkness, cold, and hard work are in Atkinson’s opinion important causes of scurvy.

Now, I had been taught in school that scurvy had been conquered in 1747, when the Scottish physician James Lind proved in one of the first controlled medical experiments that citrus fruits were an effective cure for the disease. From that point on, we were told, the Royal Navy had required a daily dose of lime juice to be mixed in with sailors’ grog, and scurvy ceased to be a problem on long ocean voyages.

But here was a Royal Navy surgeon in 1911 apparently ignorant of what caused the disease, or how to cure it. Somehow a highly-trained group of scientists at the start of the 20th century knew less about scurvy than the average sea captain in Napoleonic times. Scott left a base abundantly stocked with fresh meat, fruits, apples, and lime juice, and headed out on the ice for five months with no protection against scurvy, all the while confident he was not at risk. What happened?