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.