Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Secret Messages in Historical Fiction

Please welcome Pamela Taylor, author of the historical fiction novel, Pestilence. Pamela Taylor brings her love of history to the art of storytelling in the Second Son Chronicles. An avid reader of historical fact and fiction, she finds the past offers rich sources for character, ambiance, and plot that allow readers to escape into a world totally unlike their daily lives. She shares her home with two Corgis who frequently reminder her that a dog walk is the best way to find inspiration for that next chapter. Pamela very kindly divulges the secrets behind the coding of messages, always important in dangerous and uncertain times. But how many methods could one use?

Secret Messages in Historical Fiction
Secrets are as old as time. As soon as humans realized they could gain an advantage by keeping others from finding out what they knew, they started devising methods to protect their knowledge. And when they needed to share that knowledge with an ally, they began developing techniques to transmit it in secret. Among the earliest were pictographic techniques – either hidden in graphical representation of language or in drawings. Eventually, men developed locks and keys. Secrets could be protected in locked chests or boxes. Over time, the locks and keys grew ever more complex and often included booby traps that could harm anyone trying to break into them. Puzzles could also hide secrets (think complex puzzle boxes that could contain hidden messages or contraband). Karen Brooks’ historical novel The Locksmith’s Daughter includes some nice depictions of these methods.

But boxes and chests and paintings and physical things are bulky. What if one needed to send a message that could be easily concealed by the messenger but not easily read if it was intercepted? Invisible writing – using citrus juice or milk as ink – could hide a message which would be revealed only when the paper was heated. Citrus juice or milk might not always be close at hand, though. That’s where coded messages come into play. Encryption (encoding a message) goes back as far as Julius Caesar, who used simple alphabetic substitution. His trusted allies knew that he always used an offset of three, meaning that the letter “D” would be substituted for “A,” so they could decode the message easily while his enemies, presumably, would remain confused.

In the Second Son Chronicles, Alfred (the protagonist) and his grandfather are both students of Roman history, so they know about Caesar’s method. When, in Second Son, Alfred needs to send an urgent message to his grandfather in secret, he encodes it as Caesar would have:
Vxqgdb qhaw. Dwwdfn hduob pruqlqj dv phq dzdnh. Wzhoyh phq lq jdqj. Udqxoi, vrqv, vla qhz lq jdqj, Urqdq dqg vtxluh. Doiuhg

He knows his grandfather will recognize the garbled message for what it is and will know how to make sense of it. But what other precautions does he take to make sure his message isn’t intercepted. In Pestilence, Alfred faces an entirely different impediment to communicating with his friends while avoiding the prying eyes of his brother’s spies. His solution may surprise you. As the series progresses, Alfred’s lifelong interest in books and learning will lead him to new discoveries about secret communications. He finds a book from the ninth century by an Arabic mathematician that introduces the idea of polyalphabetic substitution. This concept uses a table like this: 

The sender would pick a row and make that the first letter of the message. So if the king wanted to tell all his commanders “Attack at dawn,” he could encode it as:
Mmffmow mf pmiz.

The recipient would know that the first letter represents the row or column to be used for decoding – in this case, “M.”  Throw away the first letter and then decode the rest of the message. The lovely thing about this method is that is doesn’t matter if either the sender or the recipient chooses a row or a column for the encoding and decoding.  The results come out the same either way.  And, just like the Caesar cipher, the sender or recipient can construct the code table when they need it and doesn’t have to carry anything with them that might fall into the wrong hands.

 Follow the series to learn how Alfred puts that new knowledge to use and who he shares it with.

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Seeker: A Sea Odyssey


I’m delighted to welcome intrepid traveler Rita Pomade to my blog today. I get queasy just looking at the sea and have been known to get sick sitting in a boat, so Rita’s journey was, to me, absolutely eye-opening. Rita shares some thoughts on her sea odyssey and what she did not do and could have done! Rita, an intrepid nomad originally from New York, now lives and writes in Montreal. Her work has appeared in literary magazines and poetry reviews, and her monologue for auditioning actors was selected for inclusion in the Monologue Bank. An excerpt from her forthcoming memoir Seeker: A Sea Odyssey was included in two travel anthologies. 
 
How I Could Have Enriched My Sea Journey

“Will I drown at sea?” I needed reassurance before I left with my family on our sea odyssey that would take us half-way around the world. Surely, Donatian Gravel, astrologer to Pierre Trudeau, Canada’s 15th Prime Minster, couldn’t be wrong. A friend who was sure Mr. Gravel was on Trudeau’s payroll recommended him. It seemed like a good referral. “How about my kids?” Mr. Gravel studied the symbols scribbled on the chart between us. “You’ll all be fine,” he said. My other preparation was a Sunday sail on Lake Chaplain under a light breeze where I spent the afternoon drinking Chardonnay wine and gorging on tasty snacks. That was it. That’s all I knew of sailing. My focus was on the adventure, the countries, the excitement of travel where I could experience cultures without a timeline.

I didn’t bother to read books on sailing. I didn’t even think it necessary to take a course. I figured I’d learn on the way. But once I was in the thick of it, I didn’t have time on my side. I wasn’t a natural sailor and would have needed an instructor to take me through the steps in a protected environment—away from the worry of pirates, squalls, and rough seas. Fortunately, I could follow instructions and learned that I didn’t panic in danger. And I was fortunate to have a mate who was a consummate sailor. But I had no idea what to do if anything happened to him. If he fell overboard or became too ill to handle the yacht, I’d float on an endless sea, rudderless. I couldn’t read charts. I couldn’t use a sexton. I wasn’t even sure when to tack or reef without his telling me.

In short, whatever the sail, I couldn’t lose that undercurrent of anxiety. When the yacht heeled and flew effortlessly on a strong wind, my mate was in his element. I was afraid we’d topple over. When he jumped into a vast, empty sea to free our log line from the prop, I worried if he’d come up safe. But I also worried about what I’d do if he didn’t come up at all. I loved the adventure—meeting people from diverse cultures, experiencing new foods, learning how accommodate to new situations. But my lack of confidence in handling the yacht brought an edge of discomfort each time we were at sea—and we were often many days out there before landfall.
I also regret not having educated myself about the history and culture of the more than twenty countries we travelled through. I gained a lot because of the luxury of no time frame, but I’d have learned a lot more if I’d have had more background. I found myself catching up after the journey was over. I wanted to learn more about the places where I had been, and I did. But had I done that before our adventure, the journey would have been richer.

For old sea dogs looking for more sea stories or for those who want to try an exciting around the world trip, Rita’s book is available on Amazon.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Save the Cat! (And How to Do It!)


Who hasn’t heard of the Save the Cat method of writing? I had, of course. However, being old school and a mix of a plotter and a pantser, I was happy with my loose sheets of paper (for the plot/scenes), my big A4 notebook (now falling apart) with sections for each novel in my Middle Grade adventure series, The Chronicles of the Stone. I must say it has become harder to keep track of things with each book, and I have screeds of notes on recurring themes, ‘breadcrumbs’ for each plot that link the books, and what people said in Book One that might be relevant to Book Five (which is where I am now in a 7-part series). I am generally skeptical of new-fangled computer systems of making notes and keeping track. Nothing beats physical notebooks for me. However, knowing about Save the Cat! as a tried and tested (by others) method, I thought it might be interesting to try.

Save the Cat! provides writers with the resources they need to develop their screenplays and novels based on a series of best-selling books, primarily written by Blake Snyder (1957- 2009). Blake’s method is based on 10 distinctive genres and his 15 story beats (the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet). The books, workshops, story structure software, apps, and story coaching teach you everything you need to unlock the fundamentals and mechanics of plot and character transformation.
Save the Cat! Story Structure Software is adapted from the Save the Cat! methodology to help screenwriters and novelists unlock the fundamentals of plot and character transformation. The Story Structure Software is a virtual writer board with digital index cards to help map out your story against the 15 beats or plot points to your story. The software enables writers to track emotional shifts of characters from scene to scene, develop profiles and edit and change your story with ease.

 
The system starts with a logline to help you define what your story is about. Then the 10 genres which help define the story even further. You’d be amazed at how many writers who mislabel their stories. My series fits into ‘The Golden Fleece.’ Beat sheets enable the writer to create their own plot and character analysis. There are examples and a free blank beat sheet for you to test drive things a tad, in case you don’t want to jump in boots and all. But finally, the board, which is the piece de resistance. This is laid out for the author in such a way that they cannot fail to produce a great story plan, with each scene having emotional change and conflict. But lest you think this is a ‘paint by numbers’ approach that reduces your creativity, think again and give it a try. The website offers so much information to both answer your questions and give you food for thought. I'm going to give it a try! Visit www.savethecat.com.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Book Review: The Shadow of the Witchfinder


The tenth adventure in the Shadows of the Past series, The Shadow of the Witchfinder finds Max, the talking Tonkinese cat, and the Lancelot twins Jemima and  Joe with best friend Charlie transported back to the 17th century, a terrible time in history dominated by a man with murderous intent: Matthew Hopkins aka The Witchfinder General! Hopkins’s mission is to eradicate all women suspected of being witches by burning them at the stake. Alas, many innocent women perished in his reign of terror. It is up to Max and his team to save Goodwife Clowes’ sister, imprisoned by Hopkins, along with several other women, awaiting what can only be called a sham trial before being consigned to the flames. Having returned through a time vortex at an uncomfortably dizzying speed, Max has the details. Now it’s up to the team to use their magic book to take them back into the pages of history. But first they need to read up all they can on the sinister Matthew Hopkins. Max isn’t all that keen on returning to Mistley Thorn, but innocent people’s lives are at stake. Plus, Charlie and Jemima have put together a kit including all kinds of potentially useful things. Max was annoyed that the list did not include a few sachets of yummy cat food, which he would most certainly label as an ‘essential item.’

 Using the book, Jemima’s necklace, and the poem as before, the trio plus Max find themselves whisked off to Mistley Thorn, and what a cold, misty scary place it is too! Magic and mayhem start right away because Goody Clowes might be more than just an innocent old lady who likes to sweep the place clean with her broom. Remembering his last encounter in Mistley Thorn, Max is definitely not up to any incredible feats of bravery that might be required. This is the first time that the kids have taken modern day items back into history and these spark off a chain of suspenseful and at times hilarious reactions as they try to rescue the imprisoned women. Harry Potter fans will just love the references and the reactions of the villagers to scenes of ‘wizardry,’ although not everything goes according to plan…
 
The author has created some very clever plot twists around this angle. If Max thought he was going to wriggle out of confrontations, he is wrong as Goody Clowes announces he must do battle with the Witchfinder himself. Why is it always me, he wonders…. He didn’t want to be a hero, just an ordinary cat. Alas, Max has had greatness thrust upon him and there’s no escaping destiny. Can he turn the tables on the Witchfinder and make sure Hopkins gets his just deserts?
 

Once again Wendy Leighton-Porter incudes excellent extras at the end of the story for young readers interested in Max’s genealogy, which is truly magical, and details of the Witchfinder’s rule of fear and his untimely end. The author does not gloss over the sad fate of the many women who were accused of witchcraft when, in fact, many were just skilled in herb lore and basic healing. Halloween and its origins are also explained, and this gives a good overview for readers who did not know the story behind the celebration. The author includes details of the next adventures so fans of the series (myself included) can get ready for more reading pleasure!