Dorothy Wordsworth’s 250th Birthday

The 25th of December, 2021 marks the 250th birthday of Dorothy Wordsworth, the sister, and longtime companion of the poet William Wordsworth. Dorothy was an important writer and thinker in her own right. But she never wrote for publication and has been to some extent overshadowed by her more famous brother. To celebrate Dorothy’s life Rydal Mount is making a series of short films, and this is the first. I’m very pleased to be involved in making them.

John Clavell, Dandy Highwayman

For part of this week I’ve been writing a short biographical piece about John Clavell, an English poet and dramatist, who was born in Dorset in 1601. Clavell didn’t write very much before he moved on to other careers as a lawyer and a doctor (neither of which he seems to have been qualified for in any way), but what he did write is fascinating. Clavell was born into a well-to-do Dorset family, with an estate at Wootton Glanville, and he arrived at Brasenose College, Oxford as a likely lad of eighteen in 1619. But despite his family background, including a rich uncle, Sir William Clavell, our man seems to have wanted more. In 1621, before completing his degree, Clavell stole some of the silver and gold plate belonging to the college. He was soon apprehended and thrown in prison, only to be given a pardon following the intervention of his uncle. After that Clavell went off to London and fell in with a bad crowd. Thinking he was going to inherit a fortune from his father he started borrowing money, but when his father died in 1623 and most of the family estate turned out to be mortgaged, he found he couldn’t pay off the nice men who had lined up to fund his lifestyle and now wanted their money back. Clavell did the best thing he could think to do in his position: he became a highwayman. Highway robbery was a capital crime in 1624, but Clavell clearly thought the possible returns were worth it. Unfortunately he was arrested in late 1625, after less than a year terrorising the roads around London. Along with several others he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death.

If the hangman had his way we might have been deprived of Clavell’s obscure, but fascinating account of highway robbery. Fortunately for him and us the coronation of Charles I in February 1626 brought with it a general amnesty and for the second time Clavell managed to secure himself a pardon. It was another two years before Clavell was released, but in the mean time he wrote a penitent poem explaining why he went on the road and describing the life of a highway robber. His A Recantation of an Ill Led Life was published in 1628 and became immediately popular. Here was a first-hand account of the life of one of the most feared categories of criminal, a group who made long-distance travel a hazardous undertaking, whose acts could leave their victims penniless, or even dead. But not only was Clavell’s confessional a revelatory tract about a mysterious and much feared profession, it also offered advice on how to avoid being robbed, and on how to recognise highwaymen among your fellow travellers and companions. Notably, despite the fact that he was released from prison, Clavell warns others against taking up the profession. One swallow, he says, does not make a summer. Despite its lurid subject matter, the Recantation is low-key and unembellished. Clavell is keen to be accepted as a reformed character–he even begs the king for some kind of employment–and portrays the highwayman as generally more fearful than fearsome. Even so he begins with a striking statement:

Stand and deliver to your observation,
Right serious thoughts, that you by my relation
May benefit, for otherwise in vaine
I write, you reade, unlesse from hence you gaine
The happinesse I meane you; blest is he
That will make use of others jeopardie.
Be warn’d by me, so may you purchace hence
At a cheape rate my deare experience.

Some of the advice he gives to travellers is surprisingly modern. Don’t make it generally known you are going away, or why:

… you little thinke
There’s any harme in this, yet I have knowne
A Father thus betray’d by his owne Sonne,
A Brother by a Brother, and a friend
Most deare in outward shew, to condescend.

Trust nobody along the way:

Oft in your Clothiers and your Grasiers Inne,
You shall have Chamberlaines, that there have bin
Plac’d purposely by theeves, or else consenting
By their large bribes, and by their often tempting,
That marke your purses drawne, and give a gesse

But some of it seems at first glance rather odd: don’t travel by day “with any sum you are afraid to lose” and don’t travel on a Sunday. The first of these becomes clear when Clavell explains that darkness makes the victim and his pistols more difficult to see, but also that highwaymen “… must / Keepe lawfull howers, for feare they through mistrust / Be apprehended …” Not travelling on a Sunday also makes sense: only people with important business would be prepared to travel unlawfully on the sabbath, making picking out a victim much easier.

Clavell also gives good advice to inn-keepers on how to spot highwaymen and thieves. Ostlers in the stables might notice horses that must have special food, or careful treatment–above all else a highwayman depends on his horse. And highwaymen, it seems, travel light; their horses have empty cloak bags on the saddle, there for show, and to receive the swag. Inn-keepers, according to Clavell, should make sure to spy on their guests, listen to their conversations, and arrange for someone to knock loudly on the door, to see how they react. Sometimes criminal guests arrive in groups, pretending not to know each other, and they always go to the best inns, where they are less likely to be suspected:

The fairest Innes they usually frequent,
Out of a wary-politicke intent,
Presuming, for disparaging the man
They will not search his howse, and there they can
Rest unmolested, but since this you know
Let not the subtile theefe, escape you so.

Clavell went on to write a play with a familiar story about a young man who borrows money expecting to inherit a fortune, and is then cheated out of his inheritance by unscrupulous moneylenders. He then went to Ireland to be a lawyer and physician. It is very unlikely he ever had any formal training as a lawyer, but nevertheless he also practised law in London in the late 1630s. He died, nobody knows where, aged 42, in 1643.

Gillian Spraggs’s site about highwaymen has part of Clavell’s Recantation available. I was unable to find the whole poem available for free on the open internet, but if you have a university subscription to Athens or similar you can read it at Early English Books Online. Otherwise, there is much more about him (and the poem) in John Pafford’s John Clavell 1601–1643. Highwayman, Author, Lawyer, Doctor, (Oxford, Leopard’s Head Press, 1993).

As a side-effect of all this, I’ve had the inevitable Adam and the Ants earworm for a couple of days:


How Shakespearean Are You?

In my ongoing quest to find better, more efficient, more distracting procrastination tools, I came across this, from Oxford Dictionaries. You drop some text into a box, and it tells you how Shakespearean you are. The essay I’m currently working on is “84% Shakespearean” which means, apparently, that the waters of Avon are almost lapping at my feet:

How Shakespearian Are You?

Scrivener 2.0 Is Coming Soon

Scrivener is the formerly Mac-only application I use to do most of my writing. It’s a self-contained, multi-functional marvel that lets me get down to writing and have all my research, notes, snippets, and whathaveyou to hand without having to switch between windows, or fiddle around with combining lots of different services and bits of software. Back in 2009 I wrote a paean to Scrivener which has turned out to be one of the most read posts on this blog.

Scrivener has always worked well for me, despite being intended primarily for writing fiction, but there were rough edges. Now many of those edges are going to be smoothed. Scrivener 2.0, introduced on the developer’s website before its release in October [Update: November 1st], looks like a significant revision. Among other things there are improvements to the corkboard, and outliner, new ways of comparing text, and managing notes, and even ePub export. There is also Simplenote syncing, which is extremely exciting. I’m looking forward to getting my hands on it.

Scrivener 2.0 is described, with screenshots, right here.

My review of Scrivener, and a description of my workflow, is here.

Simplenote: Notetaking Everywhere

In my ongoing and probably fruitless quest to find software that will do its job across platforms and devices I have been looking at notetaking applications. In the course of my week I work on three different ‘full-size’ computers using three radically different operating systems and I use an iPod Touch for keeping on top of things while I’m on the move. Synchronised data is a serious problem.

About a month ago I discovered Simplenote, a notetaking app for the iPhone/iPod Touch which has one simple aim: to replace the built-in notes app on those devices. Like a lot of iPhone apps Simplenote syncs with a web-based service. But the clever thing about it is that it allows other applications to sync too. There are currently four desktop apps (Mac only I’m afraid) that sync with the Simplenote web app. Windows and Linux users should take heart from the Simplenote plugin for Google Chrome, a great replacement for the now more or less defunct Google Notebook (Update: Windows users might now also like to try Resoph Notes, or Notes, and there are continuing developments elsewhere too–thanks to David in the comments for the update). A full list of apps, plugins and extensions is here.

For me the best of the desktop apps on the Mac is Notational Velocity, a simple, lightning-fast open source notetaking tool that syncs with Simplenote almost instantly. Notational Velocity is focused on keyboard work rather than the mouse, it works in plain text or Rich Text Format, and it can encrypt notes. Unlike other similar applications it can be configured to save the notes as separate text files rather than locking them inside a database. This means your work stays yours and is easy to manage. It also opens up all kinds of interesting possibilities. If you change one of those files in another application–a wordprocessor for instance, or Writeroom–it appears in Notational Velocity and from there on your iPhone. You can even create new files outside of Notational Velocity and they will appear there when you next open it up; or put the Notational Velocity file folder in Dropbox to sync with other machines. That’s pretty slick, though it is unwise to have two instances of Notational running and pointing at the same folder at the same time.

Notational Velocity meets a lot of the needs I have in this kind of application: it is simple, fast, stores my data in an open, portable format and allows me to move it around to different devices seamlessly and straightforwardly. Add to that the ecosystem of apps growing up around Simplenote, and the interaction possible between them, and suddenly ‘cloud computing’ looks like much more than just keeping your documents on Google’s servers. In this version of the cloud, data is everywhere. We need more software like this.

On Poe, Chesterton, and Borges

Just added to my writings archive an article of mine on Poe, Chesterton, and Borges called ‘The Chevalier and the Priest: Deductive Method in Poe, Chesterton and Borges’. The piece was written about ten years ago and was published in the journal Clues: A Journal of Detection in 2001. I was contacted last week by someone asking for a copy of this piece, but unfortunately their email address didn’t work so I couldn’t send it. This is probably a better solution anyway, but it has been strange revisiting work from what seems like another era.

Here’s the link.

Links for 2 March 2009

I’ve been working offline a lot this week and trying to concentrate on getting a couple of projects underway, but here are a few things that have come over the parapet:

Caroline Smailes is going to be signing her new novel Black Boxes at Waterstones in Chester on Saturday March 7th between 11am and 1pm. Caroline is a terrific writer and her books are well worth getting hold of even if you can’t make it to Chester.

Lots of us are trying to find ways to make our favourite online reading available in other forms and the Tabbloid service from HP aims to help by converting RSS feeds into a pdf. You can add as many feeds as you like (at least I can’t see a restriction) and a nicely formatted pdf ‘magazine’ is emailed to you at intervals you specify. There’s no sign-up and the service is free, but you do need to give your email address, for obvious reasons.

There are developments over at the Shedworking blog, where you can now buy t-shirts, mugs and whathaveyou with designs by Felix Bennett.

And finally, Liberty Hall Writers is advising that we should kill our wordprocessors. True.

In Praise of Scrivener: a writing tool for writers

By inclination I prefer to use software that runs on several different platforms, but one exception is Scrivener, which runs only on the Mac. Scrivener is essentially a word processor, but it is not your father’s wordprocessor. Scrivener is writing software created with writers in mind. Where wordprocessors such as MS Word or OpenOffice Writer are designed to create documents, Scrivener is intended for managing writing projects. It handles every aspect, from arranging narrative, developing characters, and organising research, to the writing itself. I should say right now that this post is not so much a review as a celebration. This piece of software is truly impressive in the way it addresses very specific writerly needs.

It took me a while to get into using Scrivener. I started using it off and on early in its development, but I began using it seriously about half way through writing my ‘beer book’ some time in early 2007. It transformed the process. Instead of having research scattered all over the place, Scrivener pulled it all together. The Scrivener files (.scriv) are actually folders that contain the whole project. So while a short book might contain a couple of megabytes of rich text, a Scrivener project could be much larger. For the record the Cain’s book .scriv, even though I only moved to Scrivener half way through, is well over 20 40 megabytes: it contains pdfs, images, chunks of text, saved web pages and so on. This kind of conveniently accessible data soup will be familiar to anyone who uses Mac OS X, but the Scrivener interface makes it all very easy.

In the Scrivener window itself the writing and research are contained in two sections.

The writing section is obvious: it’s the area where you keep your writing. Cleverly though, it is unlike the normal wordprocessor model in that it allows you to write in chunks, all of which are available all the time. Rather than a whole bunch of files accessible only through your file manager, all your notes and short chunks of text are available instantly within Scrivener. It is possible to move sections around, merge them, turn them into an outline, move notes to the research section and so on. The flexibility of it is brilliant.

The research section is where you store research materials. This can be anything you can save and view in Mac OS X. From pdfs to Word documents, to saved web pages, you can organise everything easily. I happen to use two screens when I’m doing most of my writing, which allows me to open research materials in a window in the left screen and keep writing in the right (Scrivener) window. Scrivener allows you to split the screen so this will work on a single screen setup, but having two screens really unleashes the power of the research section. For instance, I can open a multiple saved web pages in the web browser Safari in the left screen while running Scrivener for writing in full screen on the right.

Two other features of Scrivener are worth mentioning. Firstly, Scrivener has access to all the text formatting tools in Mac OS X, so you can view your text as you like it. The idea though is that Scrivener is primarily a writing tool, so it is expected that you export your text to a wordprocessor for final formatting. It’s what wordprocessors are for after all.

The second key feature is full screen mode. Lots of ‘no distraction’ text editors are available these days. Write Room is probably best known on the Mac, but even iWork has a full screen mode now. Scrivener’s blows them all away. Not only does it provide more information in full screen mode than the others, but it allows almost limitless formatting. If you want green text on a black background, that’s fine. Maybe you want a single white page, or to be able to see the windows behind ever so faintly. However you like to work, Scrivener seems to cater for it. And because of that, it gets out of the way and lets you write.

I work almost exclusively in Scrivener now, exporting text in .rtf format for processing in final draft. It is primarily aimed at fiction writers and ships with templates for novel and screenplay writing. The flexible research tools also make it well suited to large projects, but my non-fiction projects seem to work just as well, whatever their length. Oh, and did I mention Scrivener has a versioning system built in? If you don’t like your current draft, or part of it, you can go back to an earlier copy with a single click.

Having somewhat obsessive geeky leanings I like trying out new software and I download a lot of new things. Most don’t last and even fewer get my money. If you’re a writer and you use a Mac, Scrivener, at $39.99 is one of the best software bargains out there.

The Scrivener homepage is here. Here’s a video tutorial for Scrivener.

Thank God Sylvia Plath Didn't Have Twitter: Merlin Mann on Creativity

Merlin Mann–talker, writer, funny man and former productivity guru–has recently shifted focus onto creativity. This is something I’ve been struggling with recently after two decades of, um, not struggling with it. Call it exhaustion, call it writer’s block, call it turning 40, the answer is simple and it’s one all creative people understand, deep down: “You can become a Ninja, but it’s not going to be easy and you don’t get a beret …”

Original post on 43Folders.

Raymond Chandler's Advice to Writers

Writing is one of those things that looks easy but isn’t. Or at least just about everyone can write, but few can write in ways that people actually want to read. This explains the huge number of writers, agents, and editors offering free advice about writing on their blogs and websites. Free advice is fine. It’s certainly interesting to hear how other people work. I think proper mentoring and good editing are probably more useful, but nothing will help if the student’s attitude is all wrong.

Writers are a strange group of people. It takes a certain arrogance to assume that people will want to spend their valuable time reading what you have written. On the other hand writers also need to be able to see where they are failing, realise their weaknesses, and understand when they need to change what they are doing. Arrogance with a topping of humility and self-doubt. Imagine strawberry and Marmite ice-cream and you get an idea of how that works in practice.

I’ve been re-reading Raymond Chandler over the past few weeks as I do more or less annually and I came across this great writing advice in a letter he wrote on December 3rd 1957 to Wesley Hartley, a schoolteacher in California. Chandler wrote thousands of letters, using them in much the same way as many writers in 2009 use their blogs. Here’s what he has to say about learning to write fiction anyway. By the time he wrote this Chandler was a highly successful and famous writer, but he published his first full-length novel in 1939, aged 51. The interesting part for me is what he has to say about the writers he had advised in the past:

“… [As a young man] I couldn’t write fiction to save my life. I couldn’t get a character in or out of a room. I couldn’t even get his hat off. I learned to write fiction by a method which I have recommended to other young struggling writers I tried to help, but no soap. Everything they did had to be for sale. What I did was take a novelette, I think it was by [Erle Stanley] Gardner, and make a detailed synopsis of it. From this synopsis I wrote the story, then compared it with the original to see where he, Gardner, had got an effect and I had got nothing. I did this over and over with the same story. I think I did learn a great deal that way. My first novelette for Black Mask took me five months to write and I got $180 for it. …”