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I am a freelance researcher, fact-checker, writer, editor, and rare book expert. I have an unusual and eclectic range of knowledge, skills, and experience.
I do creative research for writers of fiction and nonfiction. I teach classes and speak about research and fact-checking.
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Category Archives: Matt Ruff
Update, 11/11/11: The Mirage has a new cover design.
Sorry for the blog silence, but my attention was elsewhere.
The good news is that Matt has finished writing his new novel, The Mirage, which will likely be published in January 2012. (More details to come.) One of the perks of being married to an author is that I’m his first reader, and I can’t begin to describe the remarkable experience of reading manuscript pages and watching a master storyteller work his magic. As an added bonus, I enjoy assisting him with research, fact-checking, and editing. (But it’s not all fun– helping my obsessive and perfectionist husband get over the finish line and let go of the book is grueling.) I don’t want to tease you, but let me just say this book is his best yet– it’s mind-blowingly great and unlike anything I’ve ever read, yet still clearly a Matt Ruff book.
To make a long and uninteresting story short:
- My new e-mail address is email@example.com
- Matt’s new e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
- Matt’s website, www.bymattruff.com, has moved to a new web host and his page links have changed.
That is all.
On Sunday, January 10th, the University Book Store in Seattle is celebrating its 110th birthday with a party and a book created for the occasion titled 110/110:
To commemorate our first 110 years as an independent bookstore, we are pleased to present this book of 110 original 110-word compositions by a group of authors we consider members of our University Book Store family….
Beginning January 10, 2010, copies of the book will be available to all who purchase any single title by a contributor to the collection. Click here for a full list of contributors and see below for a sneak peek at the book!
Contributors include a wide and interesting range of local authors, including Matt Ruff, Greg Bear, Tom Robbins, Terry Brooks, Molly Gloss, Nancy Pearl, Dan Savage, Wesley Stace, Maria Dahvana Headley, Matt Briggs, Ivan Doig, David Guterson, Stephanie Kallos, Jess Walter, and many others.
There will be cake. If you can’t visit the bookstore in person, you can still get a copy of 110/110 by ordering online any book by one of the contributors using the promo code posted on the website.
By the way, the arrival of the University Book Store’s Espresso Book Machine has been delayed until February. For those who can’t wait, Ginger, the Third Place Books Espresso Book Machine, is up and running. Here are some related links:
- Paul Constant’s article in the Stranger about Third Place Books’ Espresso Book Machine and Third Place Press, in which he describes the experience of having a book printed on demand.
- Vladimir Verano’s Third Place Press blog, Adventures in a post-Gutenberg universe, in which he posts about “the future of the publishing industry, the survival of the independent bookstore, and the kinds of things Ginger and I will be doing under the aegis of Third Place Press.”
- Matt Briggs’ thoughtful essay on the Reading Local Seattle blog about how independent bookstores can use the Espresso Book Machine to serve “the local needs of their customers. The Book Espresso Machine promises not only to immediately provide access to backlist books, but also to transform each bookstore into mini-publishers….”
- My previous posts on the Espresso Book Machine.
Though I haven’t blogged much of late, people I like have been doing interesting things that I wanted to share:
— Nisi Shawl posted her essay “Transracial Writing for the Sincere” on the SFWA website, in which she gives great advice on doing research (using people and primary sources) and writing characters of different races and backgrounds. The essay is part of Writing the Other: A Practical Approach, the companion book to Nisi and Cynthia Ward’s “Writing the Other” fiction writing workshops. Last year Nisi published Filter House, her award-winning short fiction collection.
— Nicola Griffith and Kelley Eskridge started Sterling Editing to offer editing, mentoring, and coaching for writers. Their website has excellent advice and links to resources for writers, and I particularly like their “editcasts.”
— Speaking of Kelley, she’ll be teaching a six-week class called “The Whole Story” at Richard Hugo House starting January 27th. Her class will “explore essential elements of good short fiction: structure, point of view, plotting, character development, description and dialogue….” Other notable Winter 2010 Hugo House classes include Geoff Ryman’s December 19th one-day class “Writing Story, Writing Plot,” and Nancy Kress’s six-week class “Writing Fiction: A Critique Class.” Details and registration information can be found here. (I will not be teaching at Hugo House this winter, but I will probably be teaching another all-day “Creative Research for Writers” class there in the spring.)
— John Crowley received a wonderful birthday greeting on December 1st from Garrison Keiller’s Writer’s Almanac. An excerpt:
His books are sometimes called fantasy or science fiction and sometimes just fiction. John Crowley said, “It’s probably central to the nature of fiction altogether, to try to enter into lost worlds, or enter into ‘the lost’ in some way.” And he has created many strange and lost worlds in his fiction, worlds that are on the one hand recognizable to us, and on the other slightly altered, filled with magic… When the critic Harold Bloom was asked to write about one book that changed his life, he mentioned writing by Shakespeare, William Blake, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson, but the book he finally chose was Little, Big. He said: “So perpetually fresh is this book, changing each time I reread it, that I find it virtually impossible to describe, and scarcely can summarize it. I pick it up again at odd moments, sometimes when I wake up at night and can’t fall back asleep. Though it is a good-sized volume, I think I remember every page. Little, Big is for readers from nine to ninety, because it naturalizes and renders domestic the marvelous….”
— Linda Stone, the fascinating thinker, writer, and speaker who coined the terms “continuous partial attention” and “email apnea,” has a new blog/website at lindastone.net. Go explore and join the conversation.
— Matt Ruff (my husband) has sold his novel-in-progress, The Mirage, to HarperCollins. He’s been too busy writing the book to blog about it, which is why I’m mentioning it here, but he promises he’ll eventually post more details on his blog.
Time-traveling through the English language with the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary
Matt and I recently had the opportunity to spend some time browsing through the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary, which has just been published by Oxford University Press.
I began by reading the introduction. He began by looking up curse words. Once he had satisfied his curiosity about when certain very popular profanities first entered the English language, he turned his attention to the more unusual words within the inferior persons, as abused subcategory that have fallen out of use, such as windfucker (1602 to 1616), hog-rubber (1614 to 1621), chuff-cat (1653), shit-sack (1769 to 1785), and son of a sea-cook (1806 to 1977). This led to an animated discussion of the common themes that connected many of the words—comparisons to animals, sex with relatives or objects, and the inability to control one’s bowels.
That’s what happens when you put the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary within reach of a writer.
Browsing this work feels strangely like time-travel. All the words from Old English to 2003—obsolete and current, including slang and dialect—have been extracted from the Oxford English Dictionary and organized by their meanings and dates of use. This places each word within its historical context, revealing how ideas and meanings emerged and the different ways they’ve been expressed through time.
It took forty-four years to bring the HTOED to publication, overcoming what the editors politely describe as “a series of intellectual, financial, and domestic challenges.” About 800,000 meanings from the OED were transcribed onto slips of paper and organized into a unique classification system with over 236,000 categories and subcategories. A fire in 1978 would have destroyed a decade of work but for the fact that the paper slips were stored in a metal filing cabinet. They could have finished making slips by 1980, but the decision was made to add new material from the second edition of the OED and the supplements. Computers were eventually used to enter, store, and retrieve data, but much of the work continued to be done by hand.
The result is the world’s largest thesaurus, nearly 4000 pages of small type in two big volumes weighing fifteen pounds, with a slipcase and folding chart of the top levels of the classification system. I like print references because browsing can lead to serendipitous discoveries, but these books can be awkward to use. It’s especially frustrating when looking up a word with multiple meanings, as the index may list dozens of identification numbers, which means lots of page flipping. No, it’s not available online or on CD, though that may eventually change. I’d like to see the powers-that-be at Oxford University Press quickly add the HTOED to the online OED so both works can be used together and fully cross-referenced and searched.
The classification system of the HTOED is mind-bogglingly complex, forming a hierarchy of meaning from the general to the specific. At the highest level are the three main sections—the external world, the mental world, and the social world—which divide into 26 major categories, such as the earth, life, emotion, society, morality, faith, armed hostility, and communication. These branch into more detailed categories like food, clothing, people, animals, transport, love, moral evil, and sexual relations. More specific categories and subcategories lead to the synonyms and related words, which are organized by part of speech and listed chronologically with the date of the first recorded use in English and, for obsolete words, the last recorded use. (I recommend reading the “guide to the use of the thesaurus” to get your bearings.)
Each level in this hierarchy of meaning is assigned a two-digit number, which when combined creates identification numbers for every word in the thesaurus. Some words have many identification numbers because they have numerous meanings or have changed their meanings over time and thus appear in different locations within the thesaurus.
For example, in the alphabetical index, the first identification number for the noun serendipity, one of my favorite words, is 01.05.05.10.02.01|10.01, locating it in the thesaurus within these nested categories and subcategories:
01 the external world
01.05 existence in time and space
01.05.05.10.02.01 (n.) finding/discovery (noun)
01.05.05.10.02.01|10 accidentally (subcategory)
01.05.05.10.02.01|10.01 faculty of making happy discoveries by chance
Here you’ll find that the noun serendipity was first cited in 1754. After the finding/discovery (noun) category is the finding/discovery (adjective) category, in which serendipitous (01.05.05.10.02.01|03) dates from 1958.
The HTOED will clearly be important to the study of the English language, but it also could contribute to other subjects, especially history, literature, and culture. The descriptions of life and the earth over centuries are like crash courses in the history of science and medicine. Cultural historians will look for clues in our language to our attitudes about gender, race, and class, as with the words used to describe women based on animals (mare, hen, cow, heifer, bird) or clothing (skirt, smock, petticoat). Advancements in technology are reflected in subjects like travel, tools, telecommunications, and computing. Shakespeare scholars will be able to compare the words in use during his lifetime and argue about the reasons for his word choices. Even a category like clothing can reveal shifts in morality, as when underwear became unmentionables in 1823.
I believe the HTOED could be a rich source of inspiration and world-building for writers. Historical novelists could gain insight into the past and how people lived, what they knew and believed, and how they described their own world. And they’ll know whether the words their characters are speaking were actually in use at the time. (Elizabethans would not have called a packed meal a picnic, as it was first cited in 1748.) Fantasy writers may unearth ideas in forgotten names or descriptions of supernatural beings and mythical creatures. Poets can reintroduce lyrical and imaginative words that have fallen out of use, such as candel (Old English to 1634), luminair (1456 to 1560), or streamer (1513 to 1647), all of which once described heavenly bodies. Eclectic writers like my husband who have a strong love of word-play and enjoy collecting unusual bits of knowledge will find it addictive.
Let’s say you’d like to take advantage of the current craze for vampires or literary monster mash-ups like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. The HTOED can tell you when different monsters first entered our nightmares and what we called them at distinct points in time. Follow the hierarchy of categories from the external world to the supernatural to supernatural being/spirit to malignant monster (noun). Here you’ll find that the word vampyre was first cited in 1734, followed by vampire in 1796. Though vampire is still in use today, the last recorded OED citation for vampyre was in 1847. Referring to vampires as undead didn’t begin until 1897. Werewolves trace all the way back to the Old English werewulf, lycanthrope was first cited in 1813 and is still in use, but the more poetic turnskin entered the language in 1831 and exited forty years later. Oh, and zombie was first cited in 1819, two years after the death of Jane Austen.
The editors have included all those words that have been too controversial for some other dictionaries and thesauruses. Curse words, sexual slang, and offensive slurs for racial and sexual minorities appear dispassionately in their chronological place among their less inflammatory cousins. Reading certain entries may cause shock, disgust, or pain, but there is value in putting these powerful words in their historical context. If you are easily offended or prefer your works expurgated, consider yourself warned.
Priced at $395 (on sale at Amazon for $316), the HTOED will unfortunately be out of reach for many of the writers and word lovers who might appreciate it, so keep it mind if you are looking for a fabulous gift for your favorite logophile.
UPDATE, 10/28/09: I received an email from Christian Kay, editor of the HTOED. There are indeed plans to eventually link the HTOED to the OED online and make it available to subscribers, but that could be a couple of years away. There are no plans for a CD version. So it looks like the books will be the only option for quite some time.
NEW UPDATE, 6/18/10: The Oxford English Dictionary Online will be relaunched in December 2010 and will include an integrated online edition of the Historical Thesaurus. See my blog post “Word lovers rejoice” for more information.