Monday, February 29, 2016

The Vagueness of Precision

"Get it in writing," teachers, lawyers, businessmen and other sticklers for accuracy will say when they want to be sure everyone understands. Otherwise no one, ten years from now, will agree on what was said.
     But can you depend on the written word? Language - even English - varies from place to place. Grade-school teachers taught me, "A pint's a pound, the world around," meaning a pint of water always weighs a pound. And that is true, if you spend your whole life in the USA. Cross into Canada, though, and the imperial gallon still contains only 8 (imperial) pints, but it contains about ten pounds of water; a pint there weighs one and a quarter pounds.
     Most of the rest of the world, including Canada and Britain, now avoid such confusion by employing liters and kilograms that all nations define in the same manner.  But Americans can't be bothered to change.
      Well, alphabetical order is dependable all over the world, isn't it? Yes, if you file in alphabetical order, you can probably locate your papers again. If you use English, there are dependably 26 letters always in the same order. But the alphabet in Greek has only 24 letters; the Russian Cyrillic alphabet has 33.  The Thai alphabet has 46 consonants plus 33 vowel marks. The closely related Shan language gets along with only 17 consonants.
     But even the 26-letter "English" alphabet is pronounced differently in different countries. The last 3 letters in USA are pronounced "eks-wye-zee" but a German would pronounce them "iks-ipsilon-tset."
     The British comedian Alec Guiness based the plot of his movie 'The Lavender Hill Mob" on the difference in pronunciation in Britain and France. His team of crooks successfully rob an armored car of its gold shipment, but must smuggle it out of Britain before they can live in luxury. They melt the gold ingots and recast them in the shape of France's Eiffel Tower, which they usually make from lead, to sell in Paris as souvenirs. Camouflaged with a coat of paint, the average person cannot tell the difference. They mark the gold-containing crates with an "R"  (which Brits pronounce "ah") and tell their agent in Paris  be sure to not sell from crates thus marked. When the mobsters arrive in Paris to collect their gold they are horrified to see their French agent doing brisk business from the crate with the R mark.
     "But M'sieur," the agent says,"that is not an 'ah' (the French pronunciation of 'A'), that is an 'ehr-r' ('R') " The rest of the film revolves around the mobsters' frantic efforts to recover the images that have already been sold.
     To make language even more difficult, translators are often plagued by the changing meaning of words over past centuries since a manuscript was written, perhaps in a different part of the world. As an example, "gay" used to mean happy.  Centuries ago, to "prevent" something meant simply "to happen before it." But as words gradually change, prevent now means to stop it from happening at all.
    And finally, where you come from sometimes alters the meaning. A State Highway  Patrol officer stopped a car bearing a Georgia license When the driver rolled down his window, the trooper asked him, "Do you have any ID?" The driver looked puzzled. "Bout whut?"
      So when you write, go back over your manuscript not only for misspelling, but for alternative meanings.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Fear of Death

As the number of ninety-year-olds in the world rapidly increases, attitude toward impending end of life is changing. Time magazine this week (February 22-29, page 72, expresses it concisely: “Why are old people less scared of dying?” under a sketch of an old person, hands in pockets, defiantly leaning forward to blow bubble gum in the face of the Grim Reaper, Death.
       My wife and I, ages 84 and 86, are among those who are not afraid. We've weathered breast cancer, and open heart surgery, chronic arthritis, deafness, failing eyesight, failing memory, gastric acid reflux, poor balance and half a dozen types of pills each day, and we are still enjoying life as it is now. At this age, almost everything comes to us with a lifetime guarantee. We have four adult children each gainfully employed, and interesting grandchildren (who are also all adults.) We are celebrating 63 years of marriage, still in love in every way. When our time comes to go, we hope to leave legacies that, even if checkered with both achievement and misfortune, will show a balance of good choices over unwise ones.
       We believe our future does not depend on “luck” or on blind chance, but on our attitude toward life. We believe in a loving God, who created the Universe and who cares for the human race both as individuals and as a whole. We do not presume to describe God, nor do we try to dictate the path by which we travel. 
      Is Jesus the only way to God? He is the only way that I trust. But I do not judge those who attempt another path. God is their judge, not I. I do realize, though, that there are some times when my path may include the responsibility to inform someone, or to listen to someone's problem and offer help.
       I sense God's presence as an awareness in my own life -- an unusual thought or idea that does not seem to arise from my own mental processes; imagination of what could be, or an impulse to help someone in need, or an impulse to change my life's direction.
       I believe there is a life after physical death, available to all who want to accept God's free offer. It depends only on our choice to place our life in God's hands, asking God's help in putting away the anger, the resentments, the habits and desires that have separated us from God's presence. We cannot save ourselves. But we can trust God to do whatever it takes. That trust is the reason I am not afraid of death.
       I look on death as a transfer point, where we change trains (or planes, or whatever analogy you prefer.)
      Your thoughts?

Monday, February 8, 2016

Making Your Story Believable

Let's say you are writing a historical novel and want to liven it up a little with conversation to start it off. So you have Benjamin Franklin coming home to dinner and telling his wife, "You'll never believe what happened yesterday: Abraham Lincoln was born!"
Your readers will never believe that either. Wait a minute, they'll think. Why would anyone believe that was important, years before Lincoln grew up and ran for president? How would Franklin know anyway, the very next day about a birth hundreds of miles away, years before even the telegraph was invented? Not to mention that Franklin died in 1790, and you have him telling his wife about a birth in 1809?
You might get away with mistakes like that if you were writing for children in the first-grade, but few American adults would take your book seriously.
More often, authors make several little mistakes throughout their story, things that many readers won't pick up on. But if even only a few recognize the errors, they will naturally tell others and the word gets around that this author doesn't know his subject.
I asked a retired school teacher who had lived in Papua New Guinea and now lives in Spokane to critique my novel, "The Samana Incident" after it was published. I should have asked her before publishing. I had worked in PNG for five weeks once, and assumed I knew enough background to get the story right. Here are a few of the errors she pointed out, most of them small, but they add up:
The island is named New Guinea, not Papua New Guinea. Papua New Guinea is the nation that occupies only the eastern half
An Australian would never say "bloody bandaged arm" unless he was swearing. He would say "bleeding arm".
When people in PNG say kilos, they mean kilograms, as in weight, not kilometers as in distance.
PNG people are great networkers in relationships. Most of my book's characters are seen to be acting as individuals, when in fact they would work in groups.
They do not plant fields, but smaller gardens, and the gardens are most often clan sites, not individual family plots.
She doubts that meat would spoil in only one day in the cool highland climate (causing the epidemic of food poisoning in the story) though it could happen down on the hot coast. One thing she did not mention, and perhaps never knew, was that the main character, Police Lieutenant Kerro, could not have that rank – it doesn't exist. In the real police there, the ranks go from sergeant directly to inspector.
Since then I have interviewed some people who know more than I do about Papua New Guinea, to see if I can put together another book with fewer American mistakes. I went to Coeur d'Alene and interviewed an Australian friend about the way Aussies talk. He advised me not to worry about the word "bloody". He said that when Australian men talk together, bloody is one of the common words they use. I asked him about a couple of other expressions I had heard in the past, like "good-oh" meaning approval. "You don't hear that much any more," he said, “Most often your man would say something like "good on yer." (meaning "good for you.")
In The Samana Incident, I could get away with an occasional mistake because the audience is mostly American, and many have some familiarity with illegal drug trade, the theme of the book. But with the next novel in the series, South Sea Gold, I did more research first. PNG has newly discovered vast mineral wealth, and citizens and foreigners eager to exploit it. 
This time, I read from the growing literary talent of native PNG writers, I Googled a dozen or more actual actual PNG mines, their dangers and disasters from reports in international news and in the two English-language PNG newspapers. I compared them with historical facts and experience of my own after forty years in North Idaho's mining district, where mines are developed under stricter safety codes. I then combined the woes of several large mines into a single fictitious gold and copper mine owned by foreign interests, dumped into the lap of a fictitious newspaper reporter pitted against crooked industrialists. And promoted police lieutenant Kerro to the rank of inspector, which actually exists.

Movie studios employ "fact checkers" full time to go over a movie script very carefully for mistakes in a plot.We writers have to do that for ourselves because in today's publishing world, most publishers don't offer that service anymore.