Paradoxes of Time Travel

So two people who have read Alchemists of Time have approached me and asked me a question along the lines of “Character X died in one chapter but in a later chapter Character X is alive. How can this be? Did you make a mistake when you wrote the book?”

I admit I was somewhat taken aback by the questions as I thought everyone was aware of time paradoxes and the possible outcomes. It’s not my place to explain these here, nor do I have the space, but if anyone wants a good summary of the possibilities then take a look at 5 Bizarre Paradoxes of Time Travel for instance. The granddaddy of all time travel paradox stories is A Sound of Thunder by Ray Bradbury which explains how making a small change in the past can radically alter the future. In his story a visitor to the past steps off the special platform he is supposed to stay on and when he comes back to his present everything is different. Only then does he discover the butterfly he squashed under his boot. This is often referred to as The Butterfly Effect and is different to the scientific version of the Butterfly Effect proposed by Edward Lorenz. However, both the literary and scientific versions of the Butterfly Effect share the idea that a very small change in one environment can lead to a massive change elsewhere in the system in the longer term.

As I discussed in the previous post I changed the title of my new novel to Alchemists of Time after I had written it. Time travel features in the book as does alchemy so it made sense and was more descriptive than my working title Heretics. Alchemy can be understood on many different levels. A popular description of alchemy is that it is a quest to turn base metal into gold. At a higher level though, and I’m simplifying,  alchemy is also seeking a way to change a person’s spiritual path from one of debasement to one of enlightenment. My protagonists are left with no choice but to meddle with time but they do everything they can to minimise the damage they might cause by creating unintentional paradoxes. They practice real alchemy but also their approach to dealing with time paradoxes are alchemical in nature – they want to achieve the best possible outcomes whilst causing the least possible harm to the fabric of time. Hence they are Alchemists of Time.

So yes, the fact that Character X is dead in one chapter and alive in another is intentional and comes about as a result of a time paradox. And that’s before we’ve even begun to discuss theories of possible worlds…..

“Heretics” is now “Alchemists of Time”

Throughout its development my latest novel has been called Heretics. I had the title before I started writing because one of the central ideas was that the Victorian characters were all heretics in one way or another, non-believers in a Christian God in a supposedly pious time. Equally the characters in 1959 were all unconventional, thinking and acting differently to the rest of their contemporaries. In my own mind the book is still called Heretics but when it came to publishing I had to ask if it was a meaningful title. It sounded too much like a historical non-fiction and gave no flavour of genre or content.

After much discussion with my wife we eventually settled on Alchemists of Time, a title which had the virtue of including two major themes of the book – alchemy and time travel. It was my idea to have a strapline “A novel of the occult.” This strapline together with the title covered a lot of the bases and I think will appeal to the audience I am trying to attract. After all it’s difficult when your novel is a historical time-travel fantasy occult social history novel spanning a hundred years. It’s hard to classify and to market with all these aspects but Alchemists of Time and A novel of the Occult are the nearest I can get.

It’s worth saying something about the cover design for which I am also responsible. I wanted it to be eye-catching and give a flavour of the story. The final design is made up of three images licensed from Getty Images and one image from my personal collection of old photographs. I blended the woman’s face on the front of the book with a backdrop of clouds. In the original photo the woman has blue eyes but I changed them to black using Photoshop. On the back cover I blended more clouds with  a drawing of esoteric circles and overlaid a photograph of four Victorian people who bear a similarity to some of the characters in the book. In fact their clothing isn’t quite right for the time period but it does the job.

So, Heretics is now Alchemists of Time, a novel of the occult which should not be read late at night or when you are alone!

When is a Post Mortem Photograph Really a Post Mortem Photograph?

Although many people now find post mortem photographs rather uncomfortable viewing there was a distinct period in Victorian times when they were not unusual. Whatever our view of them today it is perhaps understandable that in an era when families were large and child mortality common there was a desire to have a photographic memorial of a lost child or other relative.

There is a distinct interest amongst some collectors of cabinet cards and old photographs in general in this genre, so much so that a photograph claiming to be taken post mortem will usually sell for a high price, often well in excess of £100. Given the perceived values of these items it seems reasonable to expect to have a high level of confidence in their authenticity yet this is very hard to achieve. If you see a PM photo of Jessie James you can be pretty sure it’s real and it’s easy to find copies on the internet together with details of how and why it was taken. Similarly if a body is photographed in a coffin then it’s likely to be real.

More difficult are examples were a child (and it is normally a child) has been posed in a manner that imitates life. So they may be posed alongside living relatives in their everyday clothes. These photographs may be altered to paint in open eyes and make them look more lifelike. It is even claimed that bodies were propped up on stands to make them appear to be upright although such stands were commonly used for living subjects due to the long exposure times used in early photography. The internet is, of course, awash with articles on this subject and many of them are exaggerated or wrong. So viralnova.com has several examples of PM photographs, some probably real, some doubtful and some wrongly classified. A good counter to viralnova’s page is the essay to be found at incredulous on “Myths of Victorian Post-Mortem Photography.”

If you want to collect PM photographs you will often come across examples on ebay and elsewhere advertised as PM photographs or often as “probably post mortem” or “possibly post mortem.” A clear case of caveat emptor. The photograph at the head of this article is one that I bought (relatively cheaply) that was advertised as “possibly post mortem.” So how likely is really that this is a PM photograph?

There are several elements that might suggest a PM photograph, the most obvious being her eyes which appear to be painted on to the photograph. She’s posed in an everyday dress and clutching her doll so it fits the practice of posing a dead person this way. Her left hand looks very limp and her right hand supports her head in an awkward manner. You can easily see how her body could be propped up in this way (whether alive or dead).

On the other hand a closer inspection shows that this is a real photographic postcard and there are elements on both sides of the card which help us narrow down the time it was published and whether it fits the profile of a PM photograph. Kodak introduced photographic post cards, i.e. blank postcards onto which a personal photograph could be printed, in 1903. Divided backs to postcards, with one side for the address and the other for comments didn’t appear until 1907 and using a white border around the main subject to save on printing costs first began to be used in 1915. We can see that the stamp box tells us that the cost for inland postage is one halfpenny and the Great Britain Philatelic Society shows that the cost of sending a postcard was increased to one penny in 1918. These clues allow us to date the card with a fair degree of accuracy to being produced between 1915 and 1918. Most PM photographs were produced in the late nineteenth century so the time period makes it unlikely that this is a PM photograph.

There is certainly something odd about this photograph but I doubt that it is a genuine PM photograph. It’s much more likely that the photographic studio decided to paint the girl’s eyes this way to make it look better or possibly her eyes really did look like that!

Ballet in Weymouth UK – the 1950s and 1960s

 

My most recent acquisition is an album of ballet and ballet-related photographs together with a handful of loose photographs and clippings, also ballet-related. Most of the photographs are from Weymouth, or at least the photographers were from Weymouth. The album containing the photographs is from a stationer in Weymouth too. There are two frustrating things about this collection; firstly there is nothing to indicate who owned this collection in the first place; secondly, although there seems to be a plethora of dance schools operating in Weymouth today, none of them have been established more than ten or twenty years so I can’t identify the school where most of the photos were taken.

I would say that the productions featured indicate that this was a group of amateurs but with serious ambitions. See for instance the shots from the production of Giselle helpfully dated 1961. A feature of the productions is that, as far as I can tell from the photographs, all the parts were danced by females. I haven’t found a photograph with a male dancer.

Other photographs indicate that this school, and it isn’t certain all the shots came from a single place, also ran dance classes covering all ages. There are shots of classes full of young girls and others full of mature females.

Two males who do feature in the album are Cyril Beaumont, dance historian and president of the Cecchetti Society (of which more in a moment) and Anton Dolin, a principal dancer with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in the 1920s and Vic-Welles ballet in the 1930s. As Dolin appears in the photograph with several ballerinas taken by Harry Taylor of Bournemouth I assume he at least paid a visit to the school.

There is a series of group photographs noted to be summer schools from 1958, 1959, 1960, 1962, 1965, and 1969. There was a word I couldn’t read on the back of some of these shots but I eventually deciphered it as Cecchetti. This is apparently a method of teaching classical ballet dancing devised by Enrico Cecchetti and now promoted by the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing. I’m the first to admit that I know almost nothing about ballet – I’ve been to the ballet maybe half a dozen times in my life but doing this research is teaching me a lot.

As I mentioned, the photographers responsible for these shots are varied although one name appears quite often – that of Harry Taylor of Bournemouth. Taylor, now deceased, was known as “Flash Harry,” presumably after the character in the early St Trinian’s films. His moment of fame seems to have been photographing the Beatles who played several times in Bournemouth, a nearby town to Weymouth. His ballet photographs were mostly framed in a distinctive white border (not always reproduced here). Some of his work, if indeed it was him personally, is very distinctive such as the shot of Anton Dolin signing autographs. Sad to say other examples of his work from this collection, whilst looking well-framed and posed, are often poor quality and out of focus on a close examination.

There are several shots of solo ballerinas, some moody and evocative. I particularly like this shot above.

Elsewhere there are some great group shots, mostly posed but a couple of well-caught action photographs.

This signed photograph of Alicia Markova is dedicated to Lilian someone but I can’t make out the second name. Could this Lilian be the owner of the album? I’ve made the remark before but it always strikes me as sad when a collection like this has become disconnected from the family of the original owner. It looks as though this set of photographs and clippings almost certainly belonged to a young girl who maintained her interest in ballet as she grew up – the photos with dates range from 1953 to 1969. Sixteen years of ballet history that must have been of passionate interest to the collector but ended up for sale on ebay by someone who probably bought it at auction or in a house clearance. It’s a privilege to be able to rescue and preserve collections like this.

Finally, if anyone does know more about ballet in Weymouth during the 1950s and 60s I’d love to know. More photos from this collection can be seen in my flickr album of Vintage Dancing Girls.

Cats and Dogs

Pets have always been a favourite subject for amateur photographers and there are many interesting example to be found in old collections and albums. Often the proud owners are seen with their pets as the first photograph shows.

Women and their pet cats are frequently found. In fact I don’t recall any of men or boys with pet cats in my collection. The same goes for dogs – from my entirely unrepresentative collection I have far more women with dogs than men with dogs.

There are also many photographs of the pets by themselves as this set shows. It is particularly difficult for an amateur photographer to get a good shot of their pets. Even with modern cameras and a lot of patience it is a challenge to get a good likeness.

There is the usual problem with these photographs of knowing who we are looking at and when the photograph was taken. This group of three all have information written on the reverse. Top left is “Annie and Brownie, St Louis Ms Aug 1945.” Top right is Daisy, Teeny and Pedro Oct 21 1925.” You might have to look closely to see Teeny. Notes on the bottom picture read “Beaty, Teddy and his cat, see all the garden we have” but no date is given.

There are of course pet photographs to be found on Cabinet Cards and CDVs though these tend to be highly collectable and more expensive than the average. The CDV above is one of my favourites not only because it is a pet photograph but also because of its excellent condition and the fact that the dog is seated on a rare Art Nouveau chair (I suspect it’s Jugendstil but I can’t be certain). I paid £20 for this card and considered it to be a bargain.

If you want to know more about animals in vintage photography then I can recommend Beauty and the Beast by Arnold Arluke and Robert Bogdan. The book sticks to RPPCs as illustrations and ranges far and wide over the subject of our relationship with animals.

A fetishistic obsession?

Often photographs and real photographic post cards have little or no information to identify the time, person and place. In the case of this photograph the notes on the reverse tell us everything about the location and describe in obsessive detail everything “Ruthie” is wearing even down to the charms on her charm bracelet.

The photograph is numbered (766) and dated at both top and bottom on the reverse which suggests it was filed in a manner to make it easy to locate. You have to ask if this is number 766 then how much more information was attached to the rest of the collection and how big was it?

Now that’s what I call obsessive.

Not at all obsessed but ….

In the beginning I had my small collection of vintage photographs neatly stored in albums or boxes but as time went on little piles of unsorted photographs began to pile up all over the tardis-like room I use as my study. Although I broadly knew what was in each pile (or thought I did) the chaos was not helped by my cats who often decided to mountaineer onto the highest and remotest shelves and knock said piles onto the floor.

Yesterday I decided to get the whole collection out on the large dining room table and sort them into more coherent categories. I was somewhat surprised by the number of items to say the least but I persevered with the task.

The older and most valuable of the collection, including all the CDVs, Cabinet Cards and Real Photographic Post Cards are now housed in the old card index cabinet shown here. Needless to say the drawers are mostly full and I’ll be in the market for another cabinet. (Incidentally have you noticed how crazy the prices of these card index cabinets has become recently?) I’ve housed the photographs (as opposed to CDVs, Cabinet Cards and RPPCs) in a series of IKEA boxes and the oversize photographs in larger boxes.

Now all I have to do is make sure any further acquisitions are properly sorted. Of course there is the question of how to further sub-divide subjects within the collection and I can feel a database coming on any day now. Not that I’m obsessed with collecting old photographs you understand.

Heretics – latest blurb

Here’s my latest thinking on how to describe Heretics:

A novel of the occult set in 1959 and 1859

You know how the Victorians were very upright, very religious and so prudish that they even covered their table legs? Well it might have been true of a few upper middle class families but for most people the reality was different. Costume dramas perpetuate the idea of the proper Victorian but forget to mention the appalling social conditions, the high infant mortality rate, the prostitution, the violence, the squalor, the baby farms.

The Victorian characters in Heretics are different. They pretend to have the virtues expected of their class but they consider themselves to be heretics for a reason. For a start they practice the occult but they still go to church. They conjure demons but cover their tracks by doing good works. And they are involved in a very dangerous game which could have consequences for the fabric of time itself.

And all of this before Alexander Harrison finds a way to travel back in time from 1959 and join their ranks. Now the race is truly on to stop their common enemy, Bella Nightingale, before it’s too late and she destroys all of their lives…….

Find out more at: www.samsalt.com and darknessbegins.com

Notes

  1. It’s different to previous versions.
  2. It has the key points I want to promote but distorts the storyline somewhat.
  3. The photograph is designed to be eye-catching rather than accurate. The clothes the woman is wearing are more likely to be around 1900 than 1859.
  4. At the Wirksworth book fair the flyer with this photograph and this blurb attracted far more attention than the book I was actually selling.

Blurbs, Loglines, Synopses, Genres, Marketing

Sam after an attack of the blurbs

One of the most difficult tasks faced by an author is constructing short pieces of writing to be used in marketing their work. Whether pitching to an agent or writing suitable blurbs for the back of the book or coming up with a one sentence description of the book it’s never easy to achieve a good result. You might have spent hundreds of hours writing and redrafting your book but it’s never going to get anywhere unless you have the skill to construct pithy sentences that will sell your work in the shortest possible number of words.

So your novel is likely to have 80000 words or more and you have perhaps 100 words to describe it in blurb format that will entice people to look at the whole work. You can’t outline the plot in even general terms and anyway you wouldn’t want to give away key points. It can’t really be a linear description of events. It has to have some key element of the book that will grab a reader and make them think “Yes, I really want to read that.” There might even be a temptation to describe something that really doesn’t feature in the book in the way that cinema trailers used to do. It’s not the sort of thing that you can dash off in minutes. You’ll probably find yourself writing several different versions and even when you settle on the final version you’ll then want to write and rewrite until it says only those things that will convey the essence of your book.

When you’ve solved the blurb problem then you can wrestle with the logline problem (or you could start with this and work up to the blurb). You know how hard it was to condense your megawork into a hundred words? Now you’ve got to do it all over again only this time you get only one sentence. My guess is that it’s not just a sentence from the blurb but a whole new and tortuous problem to be solved. In the case of my book Daughters of Derby I eventually came up with that single sentence in a shamanic trance. That’s right, believe it or not, I had to resort to the mystic realms to get an answer and as it happens I was very pleased with the result.

“In the city where everything is for sale and no-one owns the truth.”

It tells you nothing of the story, except that it’s set in a city, but it conveys the idea that this is a noir-ish tale and that you should expect dark doings.

Assuming you manage to craft a blurb and a logline your next task will be to write a synopsis to submit with your manuscript to an agent or a publisher. And to do this you have to summarise your book in perhaps two sides of A4 and you describe the relevant events probably in chronological order though that is not proscribed in any way. Cue more sleepless nights as you work on this problem.

Now you might think you’re ready to submit to an agent but what genre does your book belong to? In the case of the book I’m currently sending to agents the genre is historical-horror-fantasy-science-fiction-murder-mystery-occult partially Dennis-Wheatley pastiche but updated to a retro-ironic nineteen-fifties slash eighteen-fifties approach (i.e. both pre and post Wheatley). That of course won’t do. A publisher wants to know what the singular genre is to gauge likely markets and marketability. Right now I’ve settled on the following for the genre that Heretics belongs to:

“A novel of the occult set in 1959 and 1859.”

But that’s not a genre, you protest. I know but it’s the best you’re getting right now.

However frustrating all this is you’d better get used to it as a vital part of marketing your book and preparing to send it to agents and publishers. In my next post I’ll share my current thinking on the blurb for Heretics.

At Wirksworth Book Fair

Met some very interesting people today at the Wirksworth Book Fair. I’ve not tried marketing my book Daughters of Derby this way before and it’s quite a strain, psychologically speaking, to put yourself out in public this way. It’s a great pleasure though to meet strangers who are good enough to take a chance on your book and to sign copies for them.

I was particularly pleased to meet another local author Emma Woodcock and I can highly recommend her blog Adventures in indie publishing.