Monday, February 27, 2012

Medieval Gems for Writers: Do Geese Make Good Guard Dogs?

Today I got an instant message from my wife while I was at work. She said “Geese make better guard dogs than…well, guard dogs.”

I landed a few well-aimed retorts for that; but then she told me a most curious tale. Apparently, it’s true!

She was citing a paper published by the Department of Archaeology, at the University of Sheffield:

The reputation that geese had for keeping a watch undoubtedly stems from a famous episode dating back to 390 BC. Apparently Rome had been taken by the Gauls, and the cackling of the geese on the Capitol awakened the Romans just in time to save the Temple of Juno from the enemies’ attack.

As a writer I appreciate any window into history I can get, especially anecdotes like geese saving the Temple of Juno. I shall certainly use that in a story, sometime.

The paper was a trove of early medieval factoids about the use of geese and ducks in Britain, starting from the time of the Romans until the Conquest in 1066. As a writer of medieval fantasy, I’m always wondering what my characters are going to have for dinner. So here you have it, the truth about Geese and Ducks in Anglo-Saxon England.


Geese were valued for many reasons. You can pluck a goose twice a year without having to slaughter it (that’s gotta hurt). The down from the breast feathers made excellent bedding, and was mixed with wool to stuff cushions and pillows.

The larger feathers were used to make quills. Anyone who has written with a quill-pen knows that they don’t last long, so monasteries undoubtedly kept a flock of geese. Aside from all this, goose is a good source of food, both for the meat and for the eggs.

Anyone who’s ever owned a goose knows what kind of noise they can make, so the idea of using them to raise the alarm when you have an intruder is very clever. There are no documented accounts of the Saxons using geese for this purpose, but the Romans were known for it. Don’t expect geese to keep robbers out, however. All you need to send them running is a heavy stick. I know that from my own experience.


As for ducks, they were looked down upon as a poor-man’s food. Apparently they’ll eat anything, and as any hunter will tell you, an animal tastes like what it eats. I’ve been told that wild duck can have a fishy flavor, which doesn’t surprise me.

The Romans had a taste for duck, but the Anglo-Saxons couldn’t stand it. In fact, ducks were often considered a public nuisance, as they flocked around public water supplies and left the ponds and river banks polluted.


I’ve never had goose, but a quick search on the internet reveals that it is all fatty dark meat and has a flavor all its own, but its taste is most similar to duck.

I’ve had duck before. The meat is very dark, and its flavor is a bit like chicken but with a very strong dark-meat taste. You can cook it rare or well done, just like beef. You can get Peking Duck at Chinese restaurants, but beware that they slice the carcass crossways—bones and all—and you’ll be picking splinters out of your teeth all night. You can get duck at any French restaurant. Make sure you get it medium or well done, as rare duck has a disturbing, gummy (albeit flavorful) texture.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Prisoners and the Hats: A Logic Puzzle

Are you ready to feed your inner geek? Let's go.

Five men are doomed to be executed by firing squad. On the night before their execution they are given a chance to spare their lives. They must follow these instructions, and if any prisoner violates the rules then all the prisoners will be shot:
  1. The prisoners will be brought to the wall, where they are to form a line, each one standing about four feet apart from the other.
  2. The prisoners will then turn to the right, so that they are standing back to front. The wall will be on their right, and the firing squad will be on their left.
  3. No prisoner may turn around to look at the prisoner behind them. If anyone turns around, everyone will be immediately shot.
  4. They are free lean sideways and see the prisoners in front of them if they like, but they must not turn around to see the prisoners behind them.
  5. No prisoner may touch the other prisoners, or all five will be immediately shot.
  6. Starting from the back of the line, the warden will place one hat upon each prisoner's head. The hat will be either white or black, based on the flip of a coin. None of the prisoners will be able to see the color of the hat that is placed on their own head. They can see the hats of the prisoners in front of them, but they must not turn around or look behind them, or all five prisoners will be shot.
  7. After all the hats have been placed, each prisoner must guess the color of their hat. The prisoners will be asked one by one, starting with prisoner 5 at the back of the line, moving forward until prisoner 1 at the front of the line has answered.
  8. When asked, each prisoner must say either "white" or "black". If the prisoner says anything else, all prisoners will be immediately shot. Each prisoner must answer right away. There will be no time to think about the answer or mull it over.
  9. They must answer in English. Prisoners may not vary the speed, pitch, emotion, accent, tone, etc. of their voice so as to convey more information than the mere color of their hat.
  10. If the warden thinks the prisoners are trying to bend the rules or quibble in any way, all the prisoners will be shot.
After all the prisoners have given their answers, those who correctly guessed the color of the hat that they are wearing will be spared and set free. The rest will be shot.

The prisoners have all night to think about their quandary. They stay awake figuring out a way so that they can pass the ordeal together and spare the most lives possible. They are allowed to talk freely among themselves, prepare their plan, and practice it until the morning.
What will they do?


  1. The prisoners all share the same cell, and are free to say whatever they want, and rehearse whatever plan they come up with.
  2. They are altruistic, and each would give his life for the other if it meant that more lives could be saved than lost.
  3. There are no mirrors at the place of execution. Just a large empty brick room with the firing squad at one end.
  4. None of the prisoners knows anything about the toss of the coin or the hat on their own head.
  5. Only the prisoners behind you know the color of your hat. Neither you nor anyone in front of you can see the color of your hat.
  6. The coin-toss is truly random. There is no pattern to who gets a white hat or who gets a black hat.

The person in the back of the line has no information to work with. His odds are at best 50/50. So whatever he says, he might as well use his chance to save the lives the rest.

One solution would be for prisoner 5 to shout the color of prisoner 4’s hat. Prisoner 4 can then be spared. This can be repeated with prisoner 3 and 2. Prisoner 1 can say whatever he wants. This solution will guarantee that at least two prisoners are spared.

There is a much better solution, which is guaranteed to save 4 lives. Pretend you are one of the prisoners. Before everyone begins, all prisoners must count the number of white hats that they see in front of them and remember that number. As each prisoner behind you calls out the color of their hat, you must add one to your total every time you hear the color “white”. When it gets to your turn, if the number in your head is even then you shout out “white”. If the number in your head is odd then you shout out “black”.

Let’s work through an example. Suppose that everyone’s hat is black. All prisoners will have a count of 0.

  1. Prisoner 5 sees 0 white hats. Since 0 is even, he shouts “white”.

  2. Prisoner 4 hears “white”, and his count becomes 1. Since 1 is odd he shouts out “black”.

  3. Prisoner 3’s count is also 1, so he shouts out “black”

  4. Prisoner 2’s count is 1, so he shouts out “black”

  5. Prisoner 1’s count always starts at zero, so he has to pay attention to what the prisoners behind him say. Since he only heard one prisoner shout “white”, his count is 1, and he shouts “black”.

Prisoner 5’s answer was wrong in this case. He dies by firing squad, but his four other mates get to walk out alive.

That seemed way too easy. Let’s do it again. Suppose that everyone’s hat is white.

  1. Prisoner 5 sees 4 white hats. That’s an even number so he shouts “white”.

  2. Prisoner 4 sees 3 white hats. He heard prisoner 5 shout white, so he adds 1, which brings his total to 4. Since 4 is even number, he also says “white”.

  3. Prisoner 3 sees 2 white hats. Both prisoner 4 and 5 said “white”, so he adds two to his number, which brings his total to four. Again, he says “white”.

  4. Prisoner 2’s total starts at 1. He adds 3, which gives him 4, so he says “white”.

  5. Prisoner 1 has been keeping careful count. He is at 4, so he says “white”.

This time prisoner 5 was correct, so they all get to live.

Still don’t believe me? Let’s alternate so that prisoner 1 is white, 2 is black, 3 is white, 4 is black, and 5 is white.


  1. Prisoner 5 counts 2 white hats. That’s even so he shouts “white”.

  2. Prisoner 4 sees 2 white hats. Since prisoner 5 said “white”, he adds one and his total is now 3. He shouts “black”.

  3. Prisoner 3 sees 1 white hat. Prisoner 5 said “white”, so his number is 2. That number is odd, so he shouts “white”.

  4. Prisoner 2 sees 1 white hat. His count is now 3, which is even so he shouts “black”.

  5. Prisoner 1 sees 0 white hats, but he’s been listening and his mental total is 2. He shouts “white”.

This system works for any combination of white and black hats, and is guaranteed to spare the lives of the first four prisoners. Prisoner 5 will never have more than a 50/50 chance.

Try some combinations for yourself.


Computers use a system of error-checking called parity whenever they have to transmit data across a wire, or store it in a memory chip. Depending on the algorithm, the receiving computer can tell if there was an error and ask for a transmission. Some algorithms will allow the receiver to figure out which bit got garbled and correct the problem. Look up “error detection and correction” on Wikipedia for more information.

For more discussion you can check out this article on Wikipedia

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Three Steps to Reveal Character: A Study of Treasure Island

I recently discovered Robert Louis Stevenson, and fell in love with Treasure Island. You might say that Stevenson was the Stephanie Meyer of the late 1800s. His work spawned a host of pirate novels, and fueled a genre that lived on for sixty years.

The story is told in first person by a young boy named Jim Hawkins, the son of a couple who owns an inn in Bristol, which is named the Admiral Benbow. As the story unfolds, the reader encounters a brilliant multi-dimensional portrayal of character that anyone could take a lesson from.

An old sea-man comes to stay at the Hawkins’s inn. He calls himself Captain Jack—not to be confused with Captain Jack Sparrow of Disney fame (we learn later that the sea-man’s name is Bill Flint). Stevenson gives this gritty description:

I remember him as if it were yesterday…a tall, strong, heavy, nut-brown man; his tarry pig-tail falling over the shoulders of his soiled blue coat; his hands ragged and scarred, with black, broken nails, and the saber cut across one cheek, a dirty livid white. I remember him looking round the cove and whistling to himself as he did so, and then breaking out in that old sea-song that he sang so often afterwards:

Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest,

Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!

In the high, old tottering voice that seemed to have been tuned and broken at the capstan bars.

[he] called roughly for a glass of rum. This, when it was brought to him, he drank slowly, like a connoisseur, lingering on the taste, and still looking about him at the cliffs and up at our signboard.

“This is a handy cove,” says he, at length; “and a pleasant sittyated grog-shop.”

Every detail serves a double purpose

When introducing a character you want to pick details that reveal that character’s personality.

You often hear people say “show, don’t tell.” I believe a more powerful technique is to evoke. For instance, when you read “nut-brown man,” you get an image of someone who has spent a lot of time in the sun. “hands ragged and scarred, etc.” evokes a life of hard labor. I especially love “the saber cut across one cheek, a dirty livid white.” Beautifully vivid.

The introduction of this character is a critical element in the story. Treasure Island follows Joseph Campbell’s monomyth pattern (see Hero With a Thousand Faces). Captain Jack serves as the herald, whose role is to deliver the call to adventure that sweeps the hero into the story. Captain Jack’s vivid portrayal serves to paint a picture of the types of characters that Jim Hawkins is certain to encounter as the story progresses.

Have your character make an entrance

This technique doesn’t always have to be used, but it can serve to further cement a character’s disposition in the reader’s mind. The pattern usually has two steps:

  1. Have the character do something idiosyncratic, something unique to their personality.
  2. Then have them say something.

After giving a description of Captain Jack, Stevenson has him sing a little ditty, then calls for a glass of rum. He drinks it while standing in the street, then utters his highly stylized line of dialog. By the end of this introduction you’re popping with curiosity, and dying to know who this person is.

Show interactions with other characters

To add further depth, show how the other characters react. Some reactions will be positive, and others will be negative. When you show one character reacting to another, you at once shed light upon the personalities of both characters.

Young Jim Hawkins doesn’t know what to make of this sea-man. To add to the mystery, Captain Jack takes Jim aside and offers to pay him a silver four-penny each month if he will keep a “weather eye open for a seafaring man with one leg.” If Jim sees such a man, he is to let the captain know as soon as possible.

The captain behaves in an excessively paranoid fashion. The Admiral Benbow is a popular place for seafaring men to seek room and board. The captain is wary of every guest, spying upon them before allowing himself to be seen. Once he is at ease, he will be extra quiet until they check out.

After Captain Jack settles in, he begins terrorizing the guests.

There were nights when he took a deal more rum and water than his head would carry; and then he would sometimes sit and sing his wicked, old, wild sea-songs, minding nobody; but sometimes he would call for glasses round, and force all the trembling company to listen to his stories or bear a chorus to his singing. Often I have heard the house shaking with “Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum,” all the neighbors joining in for dear life, with the fear of death upon them, and each singing louder than the other to avoid remark. … he would slap his hand on the table for silence all around; he would fly up in a passion of anger at a question, or sometimes because none was put, and so he judged the company was not following his story. Nor would he allow anyone to leave the inn till he had drunk himself sleepy and reeled off to bed.

…people were frightened at the time, but on looking back they rather liked it; it was a fine excitement in a quiet country life; and there was even a party of the younger men who pretended to admire him, calling him a “true sea-dog,” and a “real old salt,” and such like names, and saying there was the sort of man that made England terrible at sea.

…I remember observing the contrast the neat, bright doctor, with his power [wig] as white as snow…and pleasant manners made with the coltish country folk, and above all, with that filthy, heavy, bleared scarecrow of a pirate of ours, sitting far gone in rum, with his arms on the table. Suddenly he—the captain, that is—began to pipe up his eternal song…

All of this is woven and blended into the story as it progresses. The ultimate effect is brilliant and vivid.

In summary:

  1. Make every description do double-duty. Pick details that that reveal a character’s personality.
  2. Have your character make an entrance. Have them do something peculiar to their nature, then have them say something that reveals their mood.
  3. Portray interactions with other characters.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Learning From Online Reviews

I attneded a presentation by author J. Scott Savage titled, Using Reviews to Improve Your Writing. It was awesome. He presented a method for doing market research for potential novel ideas that you have.

Go to or, and find five books that are similar to the kind of book you’re writing. Read through as many of the reviews as you can. Here is what you’re looking for:

One-star reviews
These reviews were from people that were not the target audience. Jeff recommended that you print them out and tape them to your wall. Then when you’re feeling down you can read them and tell yourself “That book was a best-seller, and someone still hated it.” Everyone looks for something different in a book. If you haven’t disgusted a few readers then your work probably isn’t very original.

Two-star reviews.
This happens when a book didn’t quite live up to the expectations of the reader. Take a hard look and ask yourself if anything in this review applies to your own work. Ask yourself if there isn’t something you can do better, some new twist you can try.

Three-star reviews.
These reviews tend to be the most useful, because they come squarely from the target audience (especially true if the book is the first in a series). Pay attention to what these readers liked. Pay attention to what they didn’t like. Look for trends, and make sure you don’t follow the same mistakes that the author made. Emphasize in your work the things that these readers praised.

Four-star reviews
For most people this means that they liked the book a lot. You’ll get good info here, too.

Five-star reviews
Mom, is that you?

The series effect

Here is another exercise you can do to understand what your readers are looking for. To illustrate, go to Amazon and take a look at the Recluse series, by author L. E. Modesitt Jr. Here is an analysis of the first five books in the series (there are currently 16).

  1. The Magic of Recluse: 131 reviews, 3.5 stars. Very few people are in the middle. Most reviewers either liked it or hated it.

  2. The Towers of the Sunset: 49 reviews, 3.5 stars. The trend is sort of flat, with an even distribution of likes and dislikes.

  3. The Magic Engineer: 40 reviews, 3.5 stars. By this time the positive reviews are definitely more numerous than the negative reviews.

  4. The Order War: 18 reviews, 3.5 stars. Trend is similar to book 3. People are beginning to comment how the writing has improved.

  5. The Death of Chaos: 20 reviews, 4 stars. The trend is definitely positive. Very few negative reviews.

Did you notice that each successive book gets fewer and fewer reviews?

The first book in a series is always going to have lower reviews because it’s the one that everyone reads. The author is going to get a mix of people who liked it and people who detested it. Those who didn’t like book 1 will not buy book 2, so when book 2 comes out there will be fewer reviews but more of them will be positive. This trend will continue as the series progresses until book 5 when you see only a handful of reviewers, and they are overwhelmingly positive.

In short, only fans review the later books in a series. By this time the author has established themselves with their target audience. Pay close attention to what the reviewers praise. There will still be bad reviews. These are from fans who got let down. What didn’t they like?

As you write your own stories, keep in mind that book 1 is your most important work. This is the vehicle for introducing your writing to new readers. It will always sell the most copies. Some people will love it and some will despise it. Don't try to please everyone. Know your target audience, and write specifically for them. Your later books will always get better reviews.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

eBooks-A Good Way to Get Published?

I got a huge, huge pick-up from this year’s Life, the Universe, and Everything symposium. There’s always a class or two that I find worth it to go and see. This year was like a second Christmas. I focused mostly on the classes about ePublishing, and self-promotion.

This was by far the most sanguine panel I went to. At the start of this panel I was about 60% sold on the idea of ePublishing. By the end of this panel I was 90% sold. The important thing to remember is that there isn’t just one thing that brings in sales. It’s a combination of many things. One of the panelists used this analogy of using a hammer to pound invisible nails. You don’t know where to hit, and the best thing to do is start swinging.

Here is a short list of things that you should try. Each one of these is a discussion in and of itself, so if you want more information, copy and paste the item into Google:

  1. Amazon KDP Select.

  2. Smashwords.

  3. Blog Reviews

  4. Book Bombs

  5. Try to get at least three reviews on Amazon

  6. Book Trailers

Above all, make sure you keep writing. You have to learn to split your time evenly between writing and promoting. What is a good percentage? There isn’t one. Set goals. Make a resolution to produce one new novel as often as you feel comfortable, and to keep an active presence in the Internet. The important thing is consistency.
Some things to beware of:

  1. Don’t ePublish until you have at least three books to put up. Why? Because having more stuff gives the impression of credibility. Content is king, and it gives people a reason to come back to your website again and again.

  2. Space your releases about three to four months apart. If you have more books, put a “coming soon” notice so that your readers will be reminded to check back.

  3. Don’t let people hijack your schedule. It’s easy to get stuck waiting for artists, beta-readers, and others hold you back. If you know your work is ready to go, then go. The nice thing about ePublishing is that you can change things if you need to.

I’ve been skeptical about ePublishing, but now I’m completely sold for three very important reasons:

  1. Amazon and Smashwords are the new slush pile. Publishers are not the least bit picky about picking up a self-published author who has a proven track record for success. The only people who look down on ePublishing are other authors.

  2. The skills required for promoting your work are identical whether you are self-published or commercially published. It’s a huge win with publishers if you have an established following.

  3. It’s just so easy. The tools are all there, and there is no risk to you. If you stick with it until you’ve obtained a measure of success, it will eventually lead to a publishing contract.

P.S. You can follow me on Twitter. My username is @TWAbbottJr. If you have a blog and something you want to say, this is a great way to get out the word. Follow me and I'll follow you.