Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Life Happens - a Gross interruption


I don't really get writer's block in the sense of not knowing what to write.

I get life block. The combination of busyness, business, fitness & other "ness"es take over, & suddenly I realize I haven't written anything for over a week. Or two. Or more.

Discipline has always been the dreaded "D" word in my life. The discipline of writing every day has not yet made its way into the elite few things that are my daily habits.

When my writing suffers, my research suffers. And so does my blog.

I think I have a new goal: WRITE EVERY DAY.

As has been said many times, don't worry about getting it right, just get it written.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Columbus Day - a Gross take on Colonial Times


Arguably, the dawn of the modern era was the most exciting point in our world's history as it relates to the world we now live in.

I believe our colonial heritage is underappreciated in art & literature, which is why it's become my passion to research & write about it.

300 years ago, the world was expanding in more ways than any other time. Our predecessors had discovered key things about religion, astronomy, oceanography, colonization, etc. The accumulation of knowledge and discovery put the world on a fast track to adventure unlike any time before. Suddenly, our globe was vast and conquerable all at once.

One aspect that makes the colonial era so exciting to present day historians is its close proximity to today. In the universal scheme of things, 300 years is a blink of the eye. For historical information about centuries previous, we rely heavily on archeology & architecture. But since the 17th century, we find a lot more written documentation to tell us the stories. And it was written on really good, strong Colonial paper!

Because it was so recent, & we feel we can relate to the people who lived in that era, we sometimes scratch our heads over the behavior of our predecessors in those crucial years. When Columbus discovered the Americas, the world's face began to literally change forever. Faces of countless races disappeared from the planet, & some disappeared from history. Entire nations lost without remembrance.

Every single Indian nation that once populated the Caribbean was wiped out by the Spanish, who also went on to obliterate & dilute the Indians in South & Central America, too. Most of the Indians in North America's southeastern territories fell victim to both Spanish & Anglo colonists, the latter earning a fierce reputation across the entire continent in subsequent years.

The face of the land changed, too. The precious natural gems & metals of the earth were mined ruthlessly from the Americas. Millions of years of God's handiwork stripped out of the earth, leaving a scarred & fragmented landscape.

While much of the damage done in the 16th-18th centuries is undoable, so is the progress it catapulted. Never before was the idea of freedom more perpetuated. Time will continue to test its indomitability.

As we continue to enjoy the freedoms of the New World, we simply can't ignore the historic transition that brought our ancestors out of the Old World.

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Net works for networking - a Gross web


The internet is all you need to start up virtual relationships that lead to actual progress in research.

Personally, I can't orally put a coherent sentence together when I'm face to face with people. I go off on tangents with every expressed thought. I am easily distracted by my own words, and all the things going on around me when I'm talking.

But I can put a string of sentences together that make a little more sense when I'm writing. So the internet is perfect for people like me. It's also more efficient when it comes to weeding things out.

Forums are a great resource.

One very good place I find "experts" for my research is the messages boards on the History Channel. Both USA & UK fans come to the site to ask questions & spew knowledge. Sometimes, you get a gem from that.

This is how I met several people who have catapulted me to the next level with my research and my writing. Through a pirate forum, I found out about a book I had somehow failed to find sooner. It was not yet on google books, so it hadn't popped up on my radar earlier. I was able to also find the author's website & start corresponding directly with him to exchange valuable information.

Through a similar forum I found the author of one of the books that has been very helpful in my research. I contacted this author, and now we are negotiating to hopefully someday collaborate on a biography in the future.

Same thing happened on another forum where a published author contacted me after we both posted some corrections, and now we are sharing rare historical evidence with each other to collaborate on my first biography! Pooling our accumulated research & knowledge, we plan to solve a 300-year-old mystery!

The internet can lead to some real-life face time, too.

Meetup.com is awesome. I live by it. Really. Spiritually, physically, intellectually, personally, professionally - it has introduced me to many new actual relationships. Borne out of the 911 tragedy in 2001, Meetup.com connects people by providing a virtual starting point to get people face to face in real life. While researching in London, I was able to meetup & play volleyball in my very limited time there.

After a couple years of benefitting from attending many meetups, I decided to start my own meetup for screenwriters. We meet every other Saturday to read and critique and discuss our scripts & the biz. I've met some fantastic people this way. Some of those people have pointed me to resources I'd missed on my own. Through these resources, I've already had face time with several Hollywood producers and executives!

Networking can put you on to new information. It can open new doors of opportunity. It may help you find someone to mentor, or someone to mentor you, or someone to collaborate with. The possibilities are endless. It may even find you a financial supporter.

If nothing else, networking keeps you thinking & talking about your projects. It keeps your enthusiasm level high enough to keep the project buoyant. How many really cool projects have sunk into the forgotten ocean of death just because you lost your passion? Networking keeps them afloat.

Intelligence, sincerity, authenticity. These are some of the qualities you need to develop for successful networking. A degree of diplomacy will take you very far. Don't push. Don't back down. Balance it out.

I'm still learning the art, but I've already learned the benefits.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Researching - a Gross guide to Primary Sources


Gathering accurate information requires tenacity. To decipher crazy 300-year-old writings, you must first find them.

The now old joke "if it's on the internet it must be true" rings ironically cautionary for historical researchers. Pretty much everything I've ever found on the internet about the pirates I'm researching has proven false.

The only way to get at the fascinating truth is with Primary Sources. Transcriptions are not only rare to find, but they're fallible - made by humans or by OCR scanning. For accuracy, the original pages are what you need to lay your eyes upon. Even the original pages will have contemporary errors and false information, but for now, concentrate on getting your hands on those primary sources. Investigating their content comes later.

There are many places to find primary sources, & I've learned about all of them the hard way (see my first June 2009 blog). To save you the heartache, danger and expense, here is a simple "how to" formula:
  1. Free online searches, which lead to...
  2. Free online sources (digitized originals)
  3. Fee-based online sources (digitized originals)
  4. Online library searches, which lead to...
  5. Visit local libraries (publications & multimedia)
  6. Visit regional/university libraries (digitized collections)
  7. Visit regional historical societies (original documents)
  8. Visit national archives (original documents)
Online Resources:

Search engines - NOT a Primary Resource:
Sure, you can search google, but 99% of what you find will be bogus hearsay. If you get lucky, your results might link to a source image, or maybe the Project Gutenberg (sloppy transcripts by volunteers). There are very few primary sources available in a google search. Wikipedia is NOT a Primary Source. Dictionary.com is a great place to seek out the origin of words, including the year it first appeared in the English language, but it is NOT a primary source. Encyclopedias are NOT Primary Sources.

Forums are a better resource than you might think. Often in the forums you'll find an expert or two in the field who posts corrections to the misinformation. When possible, directly contact the so-called experts to see if they can help you verify the information & lead you to the primary source.

Primary Sources Online:

Google Books (free!) is the best place for every book ever published from the 17th century to today. Books written ABOUT your subject are not primary, though their citations and bibliographies will point you in the right direction. Older uncopyrighted books are available for full preview, totally searchable. Newer copyrighted books are often available in partial preview, where you can search the text & preview a lot of pages.

With every book listing, there is a list of links to find the actual book. One link is almost always to Amazon, and another link is usually to WorldCat...

WorldCat (free!) is the global catalog via which all libraries network. I say "all" loosely. Certain important organizations such as your local historical society or the American Antiquarian Society do not show up in any results, which is disappointing. However, your local library & most other libraries throughout the world are linked when you search for phrases or book titles. It's a very cool resource that keeps you from having to search separate library catalogs.

Depending on what you're researching, the possibilities are endless. For my purposes, there are special places I can go to such as British History Online. It's free for much of the content, and about $60 per year for unlimited access to everything they have. The transcriptions are impeccable, and citations make all of it verifiable. I've met the people who do the transcriptions (Institute of Historical Research @ University of London), and they're very dedicated to the work.

The National Archives catalogue has digitized a large number of documents relating to both British and Colonial history. For a per-item fee you can get pages to many historical documents without flying to England.

Another resource worth mentioning, especially for genealogists, is S&N Genealogy Supplies. The reasonably priced data CDs provide text-searchable digitized registers, maps, etc. from the UK dating back to the 1500s - when King Henry VIII was alive!

The Mormons have been meticulously collecting global genealogical information which you can search free online at Family Search.

Exclusive Resources:

Digitized Collections:
The coolest primary resources are digitized collections. The documents don't quite come to you, though. You have to meet them half way. If you're remote from a major city, you'll need to travel. Many colleges & universities, plus some big city libraries, subscribe to the collections. I'm in Orlando, but I have to travel about 2 hours to gain access in Tampa, Gainesville or Boca Raton because the local colleges don't have the funding to subscribe to these pricy collections.

The New York Library lists most of the collections invaluable to an historical researcher. My personal favorites for digitized original documents:
Original Documents:
At some point, you may have to travel all the way to an archive housing the original documents you seek. It's a thrilling experience to touch, see and smell the pages handwritten by people like George Washington, Patrick Henry, Henry Morgan, the Duke of Marlborough, Robert Walpole, etc.

To save you the pain of learning the hard way how to do on-site historical research, I beg you to buy a plane ticket and travel to the middle of Massachusetts to visit the American Antiquarian Society. In your first 30 minutes, you'll learn more about the process than you'll ever discover at another archive. And you'll most certainly find a lot of the documents you need there, be it American, Colonial, British or genealogical.

Once you've learned how to navigate your way through an archive, you can visit other archives and historical societies relevant to your research, from the massive National Archives in Washington to your local historical society in the basement of an old house.

Before you go:
Comb your hair. Many archives will take your picture and hand you a badge. They may even fingerprint you and grill you about your research credentials. This usually happens at Ivy League school libraries. You might need to carry a letter from your publishers, course instructor or whoever is commissioning you. If there is no such person, you might find yourself denied access. This is very rare, but it's a reminder that you should call every archive you plan to visit before you go to ensure that their online info has not changed. Just because their website says they're open, they may be closed for renovation or may have changed their access rules. Check out their requirements.

You'll want to take a few important types of modern technology with you:
  • Digital Camera
  • USB flash card
  • Laptop computer
  • A pencil
  • 2 pieces of photo identification
Most places you visit will allow for digital photography, perhaps with a page limit. Others will be very strict and not allow cameras, forcing you to pay for photocopies, which adds up. The British Library has awesome resources, but their camera policy ruins it for researchers. An hour tube ride (train) to Kew at The National Archives opens a brilliant world of research freedom where cameras are welcomed and documents flow through a well-oiled machine of caring historians. It's like research heaven.

Bring a translator with you if you must go to national archives in a country where English is not the official language. My research took me to The Hague, in The Netherlands. People in Holland speak English better then you or I, but their records are in Dutch, and their computers are not online to do onsite google translation (a great tool btw).

And hire an English speaking driver. While they drive on the right side of the road in Holland, their street signs are all 15-letter words in tiny print on little signs set far off the curb - and they don't have odometers in their rental cars (making it difficult to follow directions on a map). In British colonized countries, such as Jamaica, Tanzania, The Bahamas or India, they drive like maniacs - on the wrong side of the road!

No matter where you go, treat the documents like the treasures they are. As you read an article in the pen of Benjamin Franklin, you get a sense of the awesome responsibility we have to preserve the documents for future generations.

Too much trouble? You won't think so once you've done it.

There's nothing in the world comparable to blowing 300-year-old dust out of your nostrils at the end of a long day perusing original documents.

So, don't forget to bring some Kleenex, too.
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Formatting - a Gross necessity


Music & Screenwriting are specific crafts. Creative. Confined, yet Freeing...

To write a song, you learn the basics: radio play is about 3-1/2 minutes. Standard format is Verse-Chorus-V-C-Bridge-C-C. Within verses you follow a meter. There is a type of crescendo for the chorus. The bridge presents a new theme.

You can stray from the format, but the structure is always basically there.

Same for screenwriting. You have 2 hours to tell your story to an easily bored audience. There is a definite format to storytelling: Act I, Act II, Act III. In Act I certain things must happen (inciting incident). In Act II a set of problems must occur. There is a climax and resolution that must happen in Act III. Each page of the script equals about one minute of film time, so 120 pages is your max.

120 pages to tell a 300-page single-spaced story!!??

The craft is more important than anyone not in the biz believes. We've all seen the movies that make us scratch our heads. What idiot producer OK'd that disaster? But more often, especially in recent years, the fierce competition has elevated the storytelling to a higher level.

I'm glad to know the format. I'm glad to know the limitations. I'm even glad for the competition that ensures I'll tell the story in the best way possible.

I'll be glad when my screenplay is finished!!!!
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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Screenwriting - a Gross start


Gross means "grand" or "big" in German. Only in recent decades has it taken on other meanings.

I like to do things in a "gross" way (Germanically speaking).

I may not be 100% qualified (yet) to be an authority on screenwriting, but I am definitely qualified to share the ups & downs of the process.

I got my gross idea a year ago - exactly. In June 2008, my sister and I surprised my Mom for her birthday by 1) showing up at her door, and 2) driving her down to a favorite destination in Key West.

We made our first visit to the pirate museum. It was there that I learned about & fell in love with the lady pirates. Yes. There were real lady pirates back when Blackbeard plied his trade.

Immediately my brain went to work on the visuals. Why was there no movie about these hellcats of the sea?

The next 12 months would answer that & a zillion other questions that continually pop up.

Since then, I've been to the archives departments of the Bahamas, Jamaica, UK, Netherlands, & every city & colonial town along the Northeast Coast of the USA. In one week, I "attended" Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Brown - & another week took me to every library between St. Augustine & Cape Cod.

Now I know how to breeze through 300-year-old writing, which holds many challenges to any modern reader, & I've learned how to pack a computer, printer, paper & other office essentials into a carry-on size suitcase, which also holds all my clothes & toiletries. It's a skill.

Most screenplays don't require (or deserve) such dedication, but this one is special. When I get my way, there will be sequels & books & websites. So far, I've found that a lot of people are interested in this subject, but very few have ever dug far enough to find the real facts. They are elusive. But the "facts" you'll find online are definitely not reliable. Don't even bother looking them up. Misinformation is what you'll get. Wait for the movie. My movie. It'll be the most fun historical lesson you've ever had.

Until then, I'll blog about the process. I've had an adventure, including getting drunk for the first time (in the name of research!) & actually having $1,500 pirated from me by direct pirate descendants - all in one day. I was chased by modern hurricanes & floods, & a few 300-year-old fires have blocked my path several times in the quest for historical fact.

Putting the story together about fascinating, real people is a process as fascinating as the subject matter.
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