Category Archives: Writing

Kindle preparation part 4 – formatting and media queries

Flush both sides working well
Flush both sides working well

Last time in this series we looked at some of the difficulties of presenting a book in an electronic medium, where the layout on every page can change according to user settings and from one device to another. In particular, there is the problem of handling the two extremes – small or large font size compared with screen width. At one end of the spectrum you get a lot of words per line, and the tendency for the eye to lose its place in a screen full of text. At the other, with few words per line, word spacing becomes irregular and “rivers” of white space tend to open up.

Flush layout with large gaps
Flush layout with large gaps

On grounds of aesthetic appearance and readability studies, there is broad agreement that left-aligned text is preferable in the limit of few words per line. For many words per line, text which is flush both sides is more familiar and traditional, giving an impression of neatness. The question then arises, is it possible to have the best of both worlds?

Now with traditional print layout, all of this is decided by author or publisher, and the reader has no choice. Once the design is chosen, that’s it. The phenomenal rise of epublishing, with free and easy to use tools enabling indie publishing, has given huge empowerment to authors. But I sometimes think that authors have not caught on to the fact that it has also given huge empowerment to readers, who want to exercise their freedom of choice to change the layout of the book to suit their own preferences.

So what does that mean for Kindle formatting? A Kindle or ebook is basically a long thin web site, conveniently represented in pages by software or hardware. The basic building blocks are HTML files and CSS style sheets, together with some added contextual information to tie the whole lot together. This is hidden from many authors, who may simply upload a Word document to an aggregator site which itself does the difficult work.

New model Kindle with automatic left alignment
New model Kindle with automatic left alignment

But being essentially a web page gives access to another set of options. Ebook devices like Kindle do not usually support everything that a real web site would – for example you cannot use script commands to query the settings in a dynamic way. But there is support for something called a media query, embedded inside the style settings. Media queries are often used to render a page suitable for printing, or for voice readers, or to accommodate a wide range of screen sizes from mobile to wall-mounted TV with the same basic design. So Kindle books can be responsive, but not dynamic in the strict technical sense.

Regular media queries are of limited use here – in terms of pixels or centimetres, the screen is what it is. Happily, there is a fairly straightforward solution. A web device – including an ereader – allows widths to be specified in a unit called em. An em is directly related to the font size, unlike physically derived units like pixels or centimetres. So while the size of the screen stays the same in terms of pixels, it changes in terms of ems as different fonts are selected. Better still, the em width also varies as the user chooses different margin widths. For a standard device font at default size, by convention 1em = 16px. But this can be changed in various ways, including user selection of font size and page margin.

So here is the way to have an ebook layout which is responsive to user choices. It’s not as flexible as what you can do in a real web site, but then the device doesn’t allow you to make so many adjustments. Anyway, it’s a whole lot better than having a one-size-fits-all compromise. Basically you can have a different set of style rules for large fonts than for small ones, and so maintain appearance across a very wide range of settings. Left alignment is easier for the eye to follow with only a few words per line – and avoids the tendency of justified text to leave large rivers of white space in the middle of pages. Justified text is preferred where there are lots of words per line. Newer versions of the Android and iPhone apps make this choice for themselves unless told otherwise, but most actual Kindles do not. With media queries you don’t have to pick one or the other and make do – you can have both, as part of a responsive Kindle design. You can have as many multiple separate queries as you wish, though personally for simplicity I would tend to stick with two – one for large fonts (compared to screen width) and one for small. Similar comments apply to paragraph settings – regular spacing with indent, or a small vertical gap with no indent.

Media Query Definition
Media Query Definition

What are the rules to follow here? Well, firstly you should always have a default set of styles which apply in the absence of more specific choices. And the default ones should always go first, and those governed by a media query afterwards. That’s because of how the style sheet is parsed – the whole file from start to finish, and any later directives which happen to apply are chosen in preference to earlier ones.

Finally, do keep it simple. Media query support, along with style sheet support in general, is patchy on most ereaders. The number of legacy and old-model systems is high, for several reasons. People hang on to their Kindles for a long time, so long as they continue to function. Many software companies producing phone and tablet reader apps don’t bother to code for recent enhancements, reckoning that the extra investment in time is not worth it. So any media queries used in a Kindle or generic epub book must be simple. It would be great to have different styles for whether your reader has chosen normal screen (dark text on pale background) or inverted (pale on dark), or indeed the several colour options available on some devices. But support for the media queries “inverted-colors” and “color-depth” is very erratic and cannot be relied upon. So you should not specify colours in your style which might end up unreadable for the colour scheme chosen by your readers. Better to avoid colours altogether and just let the device choose.

One epub reader options
One epub reader options

As I have said several times, not all Kindle devices, or Kindle software apps on computers, phones and tablets, treat the content the same way. My phone Kindle app (both Android and iPhone) handles changes of font size differently from my various actual Kindles, including the way it decides to justify text. This is something built into the app itself, not a thing I have direct control over. I like some reading preferences that other people don’t, so anything that you as author do by way of styles and media queries should not intrude on personal preference.

I started with some screenshots of how things would be if you had to make do with just one style, and moreover used measurements in fixed units. Here by contrast is the same content, using media queries and a responsive design. Personally I like the flexibility, and the way the presentation adapts to changes in user choices. Not everybody will, and maybe not everybody will want to dig in to the details of how their Kindle or epub book is being constructed. Those who simply hand over a Word document to Smashwords or a similar site may be perplexed by all this.

Authors spend a great deal of time and effort researching the background to their books. They look out for what they consider a good cover. They may pay for the services of an editor. Yet many authors dislike the thought of engaging with the technology that finally delivers their book into the reader’s hands. By way of doing something, many just try to copy the methods they used for print. But ebooks are a different medium to print, and need their own treatment. Happily, it is relatively easy to offer a better reading experience for those who want it. Complete consistency across devices is not possible, but through media queries and the use of ems to measure dimensions we can get a good way towards that.

This is almost the end of this little series, and the last item will be a quick summary of key points.

Some devices
Some devices

Kindle preparation part 3 – navigation

A shorter blog today focusing specifically on navigation. I mentioned before that there were two different ways of navigating through the sections of an ebook, and this little post will focus on how they work. The two methods appear differently in the book – the HTML contents page is part of the regular page flow of the book, and the NCX navigation is outside of the pages, as we’ll see later.

Print Book TOC
Print Book TOC

It’s an area where ebooks behave quite differently to print versions. If you have a table of contents (TOC) in a print book it’s essentially another piece of static text, listing page numbers to turn to. Nonfiction books frequently have other similar lists such as tables or pictures, but I’ll be focusing only on section navigation – usually chapters but potentially other significant divisions. In an ebook this changes from a simple static list into a dynamic means of navigation.

TOC navigation page
TOC navigation page

Let’s take the HTML contents first. It looks essentially the same as the old print TOC, except that the page numbers are omitted (since they have no real meaning) and are replaced by dynamic links. Tap the link and you go to the corresponding location. They look just like links in a web page, for the very good reason that this is exactly what they are!

So the first step is to construct your HTML contents list, for which you need to know both the visible text – “Chapter 1”, perhaps – and the target location. Authors who use Word or a similar tool can usually generate this quite quickly, while those of us who work directly with source files have the easy task of inserting the anchor targets by hand. It’s entirely up to you how you style and structure your contents page – maybe it makes sense to have main parts and subsections, with the latter visually indented. It’s your choice.

Missing NCX navigation
Missing NCX navigation

The NCX navigation is a bit different. It’s a separate file, and the pairing of visible text and target link is done by means of an XML files of a specific structure. Again. some commercial software will be able to generate this for you, using the HTML TOC as a starting point, but it’s as well to know what it is doing for you.  Conventionally the two lists of contents mirror each other, but this doesn’t have to be the case. For example, it might suit you better to have the HTML version with an exhaustive list, and the NCX version with just a subset. It’s up to you. However, the presence of NCX navigation in some form is a requirement of Amazon’s, sufficiently so that they reserve the right to fail validation if it’s not present. And it’s a mandatory part of the epub specifications, and a package will fail epubcheck if NCX is missing. You’ll get an error message like this:

Validating using EPUB version 2.0.1 rules.
ERROR(RSC-005): C:/Users/Richard/Dropbox/Poems/test/Test.epub/Test_epub.opf(39,8): Error while parsing file ‘element “spine” missing required attribute “toc”‘.
ERROR(NCX-002): C:/Users/Richard/Dropbox/Poems/test/Test.epub/Test_epub.opf(-1,-1): toc attribute was not found on the spine element.

Partial NCX file
Partial NCX file

Of course, if you don’t check for validation, or if you just use Kindlegen without being cautious, you will end up with an epub or Kindle mobi file that you can ship… it will just be lacking an important feature.

Interestingly, you don’t get an error if you omit the HTML TOC – so long as everything else is in order, your epub file will pass validation just fine. This is the opposite of what folk who are used to print books might guess, but it reflects the relative importance of NCX and HTML contents tables in an ebook.

NCX navigation included
NCX navigation included

So what exactly do they each do? The main purpose of the HTML version is clear – it sits at the front of the book so that people can jump directly to whatever chapter they want. It would do this even if you just included the file in the spine listing. But if you are careful to specify its role in the OPF file, it also enables a link in the overall Kindle (or epub) navigation. This way the user can jump straight to the TOC from anywhere.

The NCX navigation enables the rest of this “Go To” menu. If it’s missing, or incorrectly hooked up in the OPF file, the navigation will be missing, and you are leaving your readers struggling to work out how to flick easily to and fro. On older Kindles, there were little hardware buttons (either on the side of the casing or marked with little arrows on the front) which would go stepwise forwards and backwards through the NCX entries.

So that’s it for the two kinds of navigation. They’re easy to include, they add considerably to the user experience, and in one way or another are considered essential.

Mappings between items in OPF file
Mappings between items in OPF file

Kindle preparation part 1 – the background

Kindle and Epub Devices
Kindle and Epub Devices

This is the first of an occasional series on the quirks of preparing ebooks. Almost everything applies equally to Kindle and general epub, but for the sake of quickness I shall normally just write “Kindle”.

The conversion of a manuscript written in some text editor through to a built ebook – a mobi or epub file – happens in several logical stages. A lot of authors aren’t really aware of this, and just use a package which does the conversion for them. Later in this series I’ll talk a bit about how Amazon’s software – KindleGen – does this, and what parts of your input end up doing what.

Changing the name of an epub file
Changing the name of an epub file

First, what is a ebook? You can see this best with a generic epub file. Find such a file on your system, then make a copy so you don’t accidentally corrupt your original. Let’s say it’s Test.epub. Rename it to and give approval if your computer warns you about changing file extension.

Contents of epub file
Contents of epub file

Then you can look inside the contents and see what’s there – a very specific folder structure together with a bunch of content files. This is what your epub reader device or app turns into something that looks like a book. This list not only lists the files, but (presupposing you’ve given sensible names to the source files) it tells you something about their purpose. The ones identified as HTML Documents are basically the text of the book, including the contents listing and any front and back matter the author chooses to put in. The document styles are there. There’s a cover image. The ncx file describes how the Kindle or epub reader will navigate through the book (of which more another time). The opf file is the fundamental piece of the jigsaw that defines the internal layout. The images folder contains, well, images used. The other files are necessary components to enable the whole lot to make sense to the reading app or device.

A Kindle mobi file is much the same except that there is usually some encryption and obfuscation to dissuade casual hacking. But actually, almost exactly the same set of files is assembled into a mobi file. What KindleGen does is rearrange your source files – whether you use Word, plain text, or some other format – into this particular arrangement. By the same token, if you are careful to get everything in exactly the right place, you can create your epub file with nothing more than a plain text editor and something that will make a zip archive out of the files.

Phone Ebook Readers
Some Phone Ebook Readers

So now we know that a Kindle “book” is actually a very long thin web site, divided up into convenient “pages” by the device or by an app. Kindle books never scroll like a regular web site, though a small number of epub apps do. They show the content in pages which replace each other, rather than an endless vertical scroll. There’s a good reason for that – readability studies have shown that presentation by means of pages is more easily read and comprehended than scrolling. The layout chosen by most word processors – a continuous scroll with some kind of visual cue about page divisions – is good for editing, since you can see the bottom of one page and the top of the next at the same time, but it’s not so good for readability. The scrolling choice made by some epub apps is due to developer laziness rather than any logical reason – and even here, some apps allow the reader to choose how they move through the book

Aldiko Reader options
Aldiko Reader options

So the underlying structure is entirely different from the fixed layout called for by a printed book or its computer equivalent such as a pdf or Word document, even if the superficial appearance is similar. On a computer, you can resize the window containing your pdf as much as you like, and the words will stay in the same place on each line of each page. But with Kindle or epub, you can swap between portrait and landscape view, or alter font and margin size, or change line spacing, and in each case the words on the lines will reflow to fit. In the landscape aspect of some Kindles you can choose to view in two columns side by side. In most epub readers you can choose to override whatever text alignment the author or publisher has chosen, and read it however you like. After each such change the device or app recalculates how to lay out the text.

Now many of us choose to use some sort of word processor to write our story, in which none of this is very visible. You can certainly alter the page settings and experiment, but most people just set it to whatever their typical national page size is – A4, or Letter, for example – and leave it at that. That gives the illusion that the process of production is fundamentally the same as that of a printed book – but in fact it is not. If an author’s main intention is to write a paperback book, and they perceive the Kindle version is just a handy spinoff, then focusing on page layout seems to make sense. But most indie authors sell a lot more ebooks than printed ones, so it makes more sense to understand the particular needs of the electronic medium.

Moon+ Reader options
Moon+ Reader options

You actually don’t need any extravagant software to create an ebook. A plain text editor, together with some knowledge of simple HTML tags, is all you need along with some other free tools. But for those of us who don’t have that knowledge, a word processor plus some sort of format converter is handy. But – as we shall see later – there are pitfalls with such software, and the end product is not necessarily as you would hope.

One of the really exciting features of an ebook is that it bridges two worlds which in the past have been separate – the world of traditional printing, and the world of visual and web design. This fusion opens up huge opportunities for the reader, but has also led to misunderstandings and difficulties. Some of the opportunities are obvious, like the ability to search, synchronise across multiple devices, swap between text and audio versions, and so on.

Kindle options (portrait mode)
Kindle options (portrait mode)

But there is much more. If I don’t like the original font, or I have dyslexia and prefer a specialised font, I can change it. If I need to expand the font size so I can read the text, I can do this. If I like a coloured page instead of black and white – and I have a device with a colour screen – I need only change a setting.

In all of this, the reader is not constrained by the author’s, or publisher’s choices. A great deal of display choice is where it should be – in the hands of the reader, not the writer. It seems to me that this fact has not been fully grasped by many authors, or small publishers, who sometimes treat an ebook as though it was no different from a printed book. They then expect to define every aspect of the display. But people who read ebooks have a considerable amount of choice over how they read – it’s a new world, and needs new thinking.

That’s it for today. Next time, I will be looking at some of the additional information that ties the separate content files together.

Coding – past, present and future

'Hello World' in JavaScript (Wiki)
‘Hello World’ in JavaScript (Wiki)

Today I thought I’d write about coding. Not in a technical manual, how to do your first “Hello World” widget kind of way, but just to give a general sense of how it’s done, and how things have changed over the years. This was prompted by the passages I have been writing for Timing recently, in which Mitnash and Slate have been crafting a fix for a particularly unpleasant hacking threat. The plot is all wrapped up in blackmail and personal relationships, but their ability to code is what gets them sent here and there. But first, let’s look back in time.

Colossus being operated at Bletchley Park (WIki)
Colossus being operated at Bletchley Park (WIki)

Not so many years ago, computers were relatively simple things to work with. They didn’t look it – all the complexity was visible by way of valves and a spider’s web of cables connecting them. But the range of things you could tell them to do was quite limited. The available options were limited, and they were essentially isolated from each other. Today’s computers are almost the opposite – they look simple on the outside, but they have a hugely expanded range of capabilities, sensory inputs, and ways to communicate with nearby devices.

The art of the coder has changed along with that. Once upon a time the programmer had to do everything. If you wanted to draw a blob on a screen you had to know exactly which bit of memory to poke with which binary digit. You needed to master a whole range of disparate skills in order to accomplish quite modest tasks, and oftentimes you needed to deal with the innards of the machine’s firmware. Porting the results to a different machine was a serious challenge.

Logo Neuframe (I worked on this, long ago)
Neuframe (I worked on this, long ago)

Times have changed. If you need graphics animation, or remote communication, or artificial intelligence, there’s a library for that nowadays. Today’s coder relies on standard modules and frameworks, pulling in this one and that as the need arises. Moreover, he or she is insulated from the nuts and bolts of the device, so can write essentially the same program to run on a high-end server, a regular desktop or laptop, and any one of hundreds of different mobile devices. That is enormously liberating, but brings in a whole raft of new problems.

Does the borrowed code actually do what you want, neither less nor more? Do you trust the library writer with the innards of your system and, what is usually more precious, the data it contains? Does it already come with adequate security against hacking, or do you need something extra? On one level, the coder is freer than ever to be creative with a wealth of open source material, but to offset that, there’s a long and rather dull checklist to work through.

Some while ago I made the transition from pure development to testing and QA: it’s a decision I have had no cause to regret! I still get to write code, but it’s behind the scenes code to validate, or sometimes to challenge the work of others. QA has changed over the years alongside development. Once upon a time there was an adversarial relationship, where the two teams were essentially pitted one against the other by commercial structures, with almost no rapport or dialogue. That has largely gone, and the normal situation now is that developers and testers work together from the outset – a collaborative effort rather than competitive. There’s a lot of interest in strategies where you write the tests first, and then code in such a way as to ensure they pass, rather than test teams playing catch-up at the end of a project.

Certified Ethical Hacker qualification (
Certified Ethical Hacker qualification (

Coding and hacking are central to the plot of Far from the Spaceports, and its successor Timing. Hacking, then and now, isn’t necessarily bad. It all depends on the motive and intentions of the hacker, and the same techniques can be used for quite opposite purposes. Some of the time Mitnash and Slate are hacking; some of the time they are defending against other people’s hacks.

I have taken the line that the (future hypothetical) work of the ECRB, to – protect financial institutions against fraud and theft, would need a freelance coder more than a policeman. Moving from place to place around the solar system’s settlements takes weeks or months, and even message signals can take hours. It seems to me that it would be much more efficient for ECRB to send someone who could actually identify and fix a problem, rather than someone who might just chase after a perpetrator.

On one level, Mitnash has it easy. He can pass all the necessary but time-consuming work of testing, validating, and productionising his code to somebody else. If I ever worked with him, I’d get frustrated by his cavalier attitude to the basic constraints of working in a team, and his casual approach to QA. But then, he gets to travel out to Mars and beyond, and has Slate as his team partner.

Artist's impression: Dawn, Ceres and Vesta (NASA/JPL)
Artist’s impression: Dawn, Ceres and Vesta (NASA/JPL)

The Kirkstone Pass

Map - the Kirkstone Pass
Map – the Kirkstone Pass

In all my years of visiting the Lake District, I had never before been through the Kirkstone Pass. It sits between the lakes of Ullswater and Windermere, and is fairly remote from the northern and central areas I normally go to. But with the A591 road from Keswick to Grasmere still closed from the winter storms, this remote route is the quickest way to make the journey down to Ambleside.

Wordsworth, inevitably perhaps, wrote about the pass:

Within the mind strong fancies work,
A deep delight the bosom thrills,
Oft as I pass along the fork
Of these fraternal hills:
Where, save the rugged road, we find 
No appanage of human kind,
Nor hint of man;…

Who comes not hither ne’er shall know
How beautiful the world below;
Nor can he guess how lightly leaps 
The brook adown the rocky steeps.

The hills above the pass
The hills above the pass

His main concern was the feeling of absolute removal from the built things of mankind, and the way purely natural objects came to attain a significance beyond the normal. The pass gets its name from a large rock that has the shape of a church – a kirk. Along with that, he pondered, as perhaps most people do after reaching the summit of the pass, on the generations that had done the same journey: 

When through this height’s inverted arch
Rome’s earliest legion passed!

Now, on a purely objective scale, the Kirkstone Pass is the highest in Cumbria – nearly 1500′ – and it certainly feels that way. As well as a few hundred feet advantage over, say, the Honister Pass, the approach from Patterdale is so long and bleak that the sense of relief on getting to the top is very pronounced!

The Windermere valley in mist
The Windermere valley in mist

Now, on the day I was there, the most extraordinary sight awaited, with the Windermere valley stretching ahead to the south completely full of cloud. The way up had been under clear skies, and the mist was dissolving minute by minute. Already the side-road down – The Struggle – is becoming visible.

The Kirkstone Pass Inn
The Kirkstone Pass Inn

The Kirkstone Pass Inn has a sign suggesting to travellers that it has been in action since the 15th century. This is something of artistic licence, since for many of the intervening years the place seems to have lain in ruins. But – so far as one can tell – there has been a building on this spot serving drink to weary passers-by for many of those years. Every now and again, the sheer difficulty of getting there, and the bleakness of the existence in long cold winters, forced the occupants back down to the valleys. It is, after all, the highest inhabited house in Cumbria. But if you can handle the emptiness, it is a great place for a pub! On occasion, it has also served as a retreat for monks, presumably of an order that wanted to retreat from worldly distractions.

I also learned that this Inn is considered one of the most haunted places in England. Many of the apparitions are those of people who died tragically on the road – typically within sight of the homely walls but unable to reach them. These are – by repute, at least – benevolent towards the living. But other ghosts have a more sinister reputation, and tales are told of groups cancelling reservations after a first, sleepless night. I didn’t test out the ghost stories, but instead turned down the road to Ambleside, thinking to myself that there have to be some good stories that tap into the history of this place.

Back in the past – the first known use of end-rhyme

Horus in Roman Costume - British Museum picture
Horus in Roman Costume – British Museum picture

I thought for today I would jump back into the past, and in particular writing. I recently visited the British Museum’s “Faith after the Pharaohs” exhibition. This is well worth a trip if you get the opportunity – it is on display until February 7th, so there’s a bit of time left yet.

Now, among other things I noticed a fragment on display from the Cairo Genizah. This is regarded as the world’s most important and comprehensive store of historical Jewish documents, and consists of around 300,000 fragments. It is a vast and perplexing mix of overtly religious material, together with secular works and everyday documents, and so has illuminated many different aspects of Jewish middle eastern life.

Now, some of the fragments – and in particular the one I saw – were written by a Jewish poet called Yannai. He is variously said to have lived in the 5th, 6th or 7th centuries CE (AD) and was a highly creative innovator in the field of piyyut – Hebrew or Aramaic poetry composed either in place of or as adornments to Jewish statutory prayers. His innovations include:

  • He was the first Hebrew poet to sign his works (albeit with an acrostic rather than direct name)
  • He was one of the first to write for regular weekly services rather than specific religious events
  • He took the practice of payyetan from a very broad-based set of loose constraints into a tightly structure art-form in several innovative ways, and

– the thing I found most immediately interesting –

  • he was the first to use end-rhyme as a poetic device.
Lieber on Yannai - Hebrew Union Monograph cover image
Lieber on Yannai – Hebrew Union Monograph cover

So he not only used traditional devices like alliteration, parallel word pairs, and the like, but also introduced end-rhyme to help structure the poem as a whole. His rhymes were frequently not just the final syllable, but extended over complete words at line ends, and added the possibility of word-play in addition to the rhyme. Laura S. Lieber, one of the major authorities on Yannai, says “As literary works, his poems are as dazzling as they are complex, rich with sound and play, allusion and linguistic beauty.”

Unsurprisingly, his work influenced Hebrew poetry for generations after his death, starting in the Middle East but eventually shaping the way Hebrew poets in Spain created their work as well. So it was very pleasing to see this fragment of his writing on display!

Also back in the world of ancient writing, it’s the time of Scenes from a Life and The Flame Before Us to have Goodreads giveaways. At the time of writing they are pending approval by the Goodreads team, but check out the page links above to find out more, or navigate to the Goodreads listings at Scenes from a Life  and The Flame Before Us to enter, once they go live on January 11th.

Scenes from a Life cover The Flame Before Us cover

Covers – Scenes from a Life and The Flame Before Us

Next week – back to the theme of elements necessary for life, and the subject of Air.


Bits and pieces…

It’s been a busy week here, with lots of behind-the-scenes work on Far from the Spaceports – mainly the work of getting the print-ready PDF file laid out properly.

As well as that I have been helping my friend David Frauenfelder get his latest book ready for epublication: The Staff and the Shield, Book II in the Master Mage of Rome Series – more news of that in a few weeks’ time.

Smithsonian image - ancient arrow heads
Smithsonian image – ancient arrow heads
And finally I contributed an article to the Review Group’s Commemorating Agincourt – 600 years series of blog posts. I don’t know huge amounts about Agincourt itself so focused on the history of the bow.

The bow is at least 10,000 years old – some evidence suggests over 70,000 – and through all that time has served as both hunting tool and weapon of war. Early arrow heads are found quite often, but bows are less long lived, and the earliest European bow discovered so far dates from around 6000BC. The technological challenge in all that time has been how to gain more power. More power equals more range, or more destructive effect at the same range. But the basic design has remained the same…


Language, active and passive

This is another in my occasional series looking at use of language across different cultures. There is a trend in English to use the active voice: “I had an idea“, “I understood it” and so on. Indeed, in some places, you come across the rather stronger statement that only the active voice is suitable for writing. This is sometimes attributed to George Orwell, though I have also read that he actually meant something entirely different, and I have never actually tracked down his original words!

Delos statues
Delos statues

But this is another of those language constructions which is culturally bound. Some languages, often but not exclusively Asian ones, prefer a passive form here: “An idea came to me“, “Understanding reached me” and so on. If one was speculating on reasons for this, it might be that in modern Europe and America, we like the idea of being agents rather than recipients. Or maybe we like to keep the fiction of absolute self-determination, and rather resent the idea that other things in the universe – especially things we like to think of as abstract qualities – might themselves have agency and intentions towards us.

This casual western assumption (if that is what it is) has come in for some serious knocking in the last few decades, what with quantum mechanical ideas of probability and uncertainty coming in from physics, insights about heredity and genetics from the life sciences, and an appraisal of the effect of the collective unconscious from psychological studies. However, my sense is that these perspectives have a lot of ground to make up before they make any serious inroads into our feelings of being an agent.

What does this mean for writing about other cultures and other times, and especially writing dialogue? Over the past few months I have picked out a number of other ways in which people in the past – or people in various parts of the world today – use language differently. There was repetition, social position, use of personal names, habits of speech, and grammar. It’s certainly a way to differentiate between the thought and word patterns of different people-groups. Some editors, and some reviewers, appear not to like this, and there are certainly big questions as to how far a book written in modern English ought to use constructions like this outside of interpersonal dialogue. I suppose in part it depends on whether the writer wants the internal worlds of his or her characters to impinge onto the main flow of the book.

The burial place

Today it is time for another look at a cover element of The Flame Before Us, and another extract to go with that. Like my other cover designs, this has been put together by Ian Grainger (, whose skills with photography and image manipulation have been essential. Ian’s site is well worth a look.

Lamp and smoke cover image partSo, the cover piece today is the third individual element of the whole, being an oil lamp nicely lit. Ian and I had a lot of fun tracking down a suitable lamp and working out how to get a good flame with olive oil. Other than being manufactured within the last year or so, this is a pretty good match to an oil lamp of the era described in the story.

Today’s extract is from near to the end of the book. In the extract, we have been following Anilat, her daughter Haleyna, and their nurse Damatiria throughout the book. Damariel and Nepheret are priests: readers of earlier books in the series will recognise them.

Some time later, they stood at what had been the gateway of a walled area. Wild grasses and bright flowers straggled between the buildings. It had indeed been a short distance, but the old couple moved only at a slow pace. They had headed south from the city, away from the house near the city wall, away from the area containing Anilat’s new home, past the scattering of dwellings starting to spill outside the old boundary.

The spring sun shone on the holy place. It was deserted now, the buildings of the interior lying empty. Anilat recognised the design from places that her mother had spoken of. Beside her, just outside the walls, was a guardhouse. Ahead of her was the main shrine, stripped now of everything valuable. Over to one side were halls where the women would have eaten, sung, and slept. On the other side was a low stone enclosure wall. The priest, Damariel, led them towards it.

The track they walked on curved around behind the wall, and then stopped at a flight of steps going down. Anilat realised that they led underground, under the walled area. The stone flags of the steps were still neat, but trailing thorns and briars were starting to encroach. The bottom of the stairs lay in a pool of shadow. Nepheret struck fire from a stone and lit a small clay lamp.

They went down the stairs in a group. The two priests were first, with Anilat following closely. Haleyna was on her right, and Damatiria on her left, and all three women had linked arms. As they descended the steps into the shadows, the flame in Nepheret’s hand cast ever darker shadows behind them. Little rustling sounds came from crevices in the rocks.

At the bottom of the stairs they stood on a bare earth floor. Rock pillars, decorated with twisting painted vines and lotus flowers, supported the vaulted ceiling. The air was a little damp, and the patterns on the pillars were already starting to fade. The lamplight was lost in the curves of the roof, but Anilat could see that the dark expanse above them was sprinkled with stars. Damariel took Anilat by the hand and stepped confidently across the floor away from the daylight, then turned to his right through a narrow arch into a second room.

Pillars leaned out of the gloom like tree trunks. Here, the darkness was thick, silent. The little flame cast only a small puddle of light. They approached the end wall.

A great figure of the Lady Nut stretched from side to side. Her feet were arched, with her toes on the ground to their left, her body stretched over their heads, and her fingertips touched the earth again on their right. Her naked body was speckled with the stars of the heavens, and her eye gazed at them without blinking. She was glorious, magnificent, life-affirming.

The wall itself was pierced with little alcoves and pockets. Small jars and pots rested in some of them, but most were empty. Damariel gestured towards them, the shadow of his hand ranging across the wall as the flame bowed and danced. His voice sounded hollow in the chamber.

To find out who is being laid to rest here, you will have to be patient… the release date for The Flame Before Us is set as mid-April, probably 15th for the Kindle version and a few days later for the paperback to become available.

The Act of Writing – part 1 – Cuneiform tablets

I thought that in this new year, I would spend some time writing occasional articles exploring a few of the varied ways in which writing was captured in the ancient near east. Of course, there were comparatively few men – and even fewer women – who could actually read what had been set down, but often the writing itself was displayed publicly. Whether on a temple or a tomb, in many cases the written word was often meant to be seen. At other times, it was a private message, smaller in scale and less demonstrative in production.

Cuneiform tablet with observations of Venus, Neo-Assyrian, 7th century BCToday I want to look at one specific kind of writing – cuneiform tablets. These are usually surprisingly small, and incredibly densely packed with information. One wonders how, in dim light, it was possible to read the contents at any speed. One’s expectation is that the surface will be rough like a brick, but (unless the tablet has been physically damaged over the years) the surface is typically surprisingly smooth.

Physically producing the tablet from clay was itself a challenge – the raw material had to be damp enough to take the impression of the wedge-shaped stylus, but firm enough to retain the shape. The two sides are visibly different – the side originally against the table is almost flat, while the one uppermost has a distinct curved pillow shape. We still use the terms recto and verso for the two sides of a piece of paper – nowadays the only difference is of physical relationship, but once upon a time the “right” side and the “turned” side really were quite different.

Turning to actual writing, the scribe had to work swiftly in order to get the message impressed into the surface as it was drying. Sometimes we see that the last few lines have been squashed together with smaller signs, or else continued round the edge onto the vertical sides of the tablet – better that, than have to stray onto a second piece for just a few signs!

The great virtue of clay tablets is that, if everything goes horribly wrong, they can be softened and reused, so long as you are prepared starting from scratch. But this commits the scribe to a lot of effort, so one suspects that the decision was not made lightly. Cuneiform tablets often contain minor slips and typos – it is possible that a poorly trained scribe did not notice, but it is also possible that somebody chose to let the mistakes slip through the net rather than go through the pain of rework.

Cuneiform tablet with schoolwork, Old Babylonian, about 1900-1700 BCThe most common cuneiform tablet is written using the Akkadian script – a character set where a symbol represents a syllable rather than a single letter. Akkadian was used as an international written form for well over 2 millennia, and on a smaller scale for nearly 3. It was used by different scribes to capture several different spoken languages – exactly like modern English letters are used today – so today’s reader of the tablet has to not only decipher the syllabic signs, but then identify the specific language being used. Another form of cuneiform, using the same technology to produce tablets, is found in Ugarit, on the Syrian coast. Ugaritic employs a smaller sign-list representing a true alphabet, closely related to modern Arabic but of course visually quite different.

Finally, it would not be right to finish this without mentioning a recipe for cuneiform tablet cookies, courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania museum blog – a fine way to practice your writing and then eat your words. Audible books have been making the rounds for some little while, and perhaps now it is the time for edible books…

Credits: I discovered the cookie recipe through Judith Starkston’s excellent blog, and the pictures are served from the British Museum web site.