Books for writers

Having written several historical fantasy short stories, I was really impressed by how well HATLESS JACK: The President, the Fedora and the History of an American Style by Neil Steinberg covers the role of the hat in America. Steinberg looks at changes in hat fashions over the centuries, the usefulness of hats (one businessmen kept most of his important documents in his top hat), their symbolic role (as he points out, showing a man rushing out of his house hatless used to be short-hand for being panic-stricken or excited) and the gradual decline in the 20th century. The hook for all this is JFK’s legendary distaste for hats, though as Steinberg shows, he wore them more than people realize. Beyond that, Steinberg argues persuasively that contrary to the myth Kennedy’s disuse killed off the hat for men, they’d actually been dying for years—Kennedy was simply the most prominent non-wearer of his generation but quite typical of it.
THE BLADE OF CONAN is a collection of articles from the old Robert E. Howard fanzine Amra, memorable for having contributors including L. Sprague deCamp, Jerry Pournelle, Fritz Leiber and Poul Anderson. Among the interesting articles we have deCamp giving an overview of the technology of the Hyborian Age (they apparently knew how to use the arch, and glass-making expertise was quite high) to Pournelle’s review of deCamp’s Incomplete Enchanter series, discussing what sort of preparation protagonist Harold Shea should have made for visiting pre-technological fantasy worlds (for example buying an old cavalry saber rather than taking his epee). If your fantasy runs in either vein, these might be useful; there’s also a back-and-forth debate over whether Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom stories make sense (deCamp argues that given they have rifles, the Martians shouldn’t be relying on swords so much).
DISCARDED SCIENCE by John Grant is a look at now rejected science such as Lamarckianism, ether and phlogiston and outright pseudoscience (astrology, Creationism), as well as a few odds and ends that can’t be classified yet because they haven’t been explained. Informative, though not as well written as Stephen Jay Gould’s science history articles. What makes this useful for fantasy writers is that there’s lots of what ifs here we can use (what if Lamarck’s evolutionary theories really worked?), much as I incorporated spontaneous generation into Learning Curve (available in Philosophy and Fairy Tales). It could also make useful background detail if you have, say, chemists arguing the merits of phlogiston (the stuff that supposedly caused matter to burn).

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One response to “Books for writers

  1. Pingback: 1959’s Anatomy of a Murder and historical fiction (#SFWApro) | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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