Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

Bronze head of a king, thought to be Sargon of Akkad. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Bronze head of a king, thought to be Sargon of Akkad. Via Wikimedia Commons.

I was going to write a very brief blog entry about Enheduanna, an ancient Sumerian priestess thought to be the first named author in history. I thought it was interesting that that honor fell to a woman. But as often happens, I kind of plunged down a rabbit-hole when I started to try to pin down some of the details.

Enheduanna was the name of an Akkadian priestess of the moon-god Nanna and daughter of the king known as Sargon of Akkad. I came across Enheduanna in “The Rhetoric of Origins and the Other: Reading the Ancient Figure of Enheduanna,” a chapter by Roberta Binkley in the book Rhetoric Before and Beyond the Greeks. Binkley is lecturer in rhetoric at Arizona State University (see an essay by her about Enheduanna here).

(Here at this website and blog I’m focusing on my historical-fiction writing project, The Cursed Ground. However, under another pen name I write non-fiction, thus the interest in rhetoric.)

Binkley’s chapter is fascinating for all kinds of reasons, but I was struck by her statement that Enheduanna is “the first named historical author.” (47) Enheduanna “lived and wrote around 2300 B.C.E.,” says Binkley, “almost two thousand years before the “golden age” of Greece. (48) I found that tidbit fascinating, that the earliest-known named writer was a woman. Beyond that, I was eager to read Binkley and the other authors who contributed chapters to the book, just because they challenge the received wisdom that rhetoric started in fifth- or fourth-century Athens.

To be frank, though, I got a little stuck on Binkley’s dating of Enheduanna at “around 2300 B.C.E.” The Wikipedia entry on Enheduanna places her a few years later, at 2285-2250 BCE. It seemed to me doubtful that the lifetime of someone living so long ago could be known so definitely that it could be placed within a 50-year range like that. How can they be so certain?

I get a little cranky when experts act too certain about events of the past and their dates — see my blog entry “How Much Do We Really Know About Human History?” An expert in one field generally only has time to thoroughly investigate his or her own narrow specialty enough to feel justified in making strong assertions. When it comes to placing their findings within the larger historical context, they tend to just go with whatever is asserted by other experts. This seems to go on frequently in academia, with the result that multitudes of specialists end up relying on other specialists, and they all kind of cooperate to construct this vast chronological model of the human past, everybody trusting the soundness of the others’ scholarship.

Most of it is valuable work and worth consulting, but is the great hypothetical model of the past so certain that the everyday thinking person should just accept it all on faith?

Enheduanna is believed to have been the daughter of Sargon of Akkad, a.k.a, Sargon the Great. He used to be known as Sargon I, but then researchers found out about an even earlier Sargon, who now gets that designation. Some think that “Sargon” might really be more of a title than a proper name. Anyway, out of my interest in Enheduanna and her lifetime, I learned that Sargon of Akkad’s lifetime is actually somewhat uncertain. In the information box in his Wikipedia entry, his dates are listed as c. 2334-2279 BCE. (For this entry, I’m relying quite a bit on Wikipedia — maybe I’ll jump further down this rabbit-hole in the future, but I expect Wikipedia can be trusted as accurate for something like this.)

However, if you read the detailed discussion of Sargon’s origins and rise to power, you’ll see that the 2334-2279 range is based on what’s called the “Middle Chronology.” Meaning there are other chronologies. In fact, the Sargon article also mentions a “short chronology,” which dates Sargon later, at 2270-2215. I thought that was interesting to see two chronologies mentioned for the early period in Sumerian history, and that idea of multiple chronologies sounded familiar. I thought I had run into it before, so I went a little deeper.

In fact, consulting the article on “Chronology of the Ancient Near East,” what I found is that there are what the article editors call “competing proposals” for the chronology of the second and third millennia BCE. Here is an interesting table borrowed from the article under the section “Variant Bronze Age chronologies“:

Chronology Ammisaduqa Year 8 Reign of Hammurabi Fall of Babylon I ±
Ultra-Low 1542 BC 1696 BC – 1654 BC 1499 BC +32 a
Short or Low 1574 BC 1728 BC – 1686 BC 1531 BC ±0 a
Middle 1638 BC 1792 BC – 1750 BC 1595 BC −64 a
Long or High 1694 BC 1848 BC – 1806 BC 1651 BC −120 a

The various versions of the chronology depend greatly on the interpretation of astronomical records recovered from cuneiform tablets, particularly the Ammisaduqa tablet recording observations of the planet Venus. As you can see here, the reckoning of a key date can vary as much as 150 years, depending on which chronology you follow. The editor says that the Middle Chronology “has strong academic supporters” and that the High and Ultra-Low chronologies “are minority views,” which is probably why the Middle Chronology is the one that has prevailed in the discussions of Sargon and thus Enheduanna. However, that’s not to say that the Ultra-Low Chronology should be completely discounted. In fact, if I understand correctly, the Ultra-Low Chronology would place Enheduanna closer to 2200 BCE rather than 2300 BCE.

Venus tablet of Ammisaduqa. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Venus tablet of Ammisaduqa. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Yet, I wonder whether there are Akkadian scholars who would scoff at the 2200 date and insist that 2300 is the “right” one — see “The Way Things Are, the Way Things Were, and What Is True.”

But I digress.

Here’s another wrinkle: The Venus tablet of Ammisaduqa, the cuneiform document so important to establishing anchor dates in the ancient Near East chronologies, is not universally loved. In fact, digging down further and consulting the Wikipedia article on that document, we learn that this tablet supposedly records the movements of Venus for a mere period of 21 years during the reign of a King Ammisaduqa, a successor of Hammurabi. However, the earliest extant copies of this tablet are dated between 720 and 704 BCE. You can see from the table above that this tablet is used to fix events that supposedly occurred about 900 years earlier than its writing. Maybe the copyists did their work properly during all that long period of time, but maybe not.

In fact, V.G.Gurzadyan casts doubt on the validity of the Venus tablet altogether, as seen in this abstract from his article “On the Astronomical Records and Babylonian Chronology“:

We outline the priority of high quality data of astronomical content as our strategy for the analysis of the ancient astronomical records in the search of the absolute chronology of the Near East in II millennium BC. … We then discuss why the 56/64 year Venus cycle cannot be traced in the Venus Tablet and therefore cannot serve as an anchor for the search of chronologies. … In sum the available data support the Ultra-Low Chronology proposed in the book by H.Gasche, J.A.Armstrong, S.W.Cole and V.G.Gurzadyan, “Dating the Fall of Babylon” (1998) and, particularly, leave no astronomical background for the High Chronology. Ultra-Low Chronology is supported also by archaeological, dendrochronological, Assyrian king lists and other data as summarized at the Intern. Colloquium on Ancient Near Eastern Chronology (Ghent, July, 2000).

Oops, that’s a least one scholar who prefers the Ultra-Low Chronology.

And another wrinkle on top of the other wrinkles. The editors of the “Chronology of the Ancient Near East” article in Wikipedia also add this little tantalizing tidbit:

The chronologies of Mesopotamia, the Levant and Anatolia depend significantly on the chronology of Ancient Egypt. To the extent that there are problems in the Egyptian chronology, these issues will be inherited in chronologies based on synchronisms with Ancient Egypt.

If you want to learn something about the problems with the Egyptian chronology, I refer you again to my article “How Much Do We Really Know About Human History?

So what’s the lesson here for the average person interested in the ancient world? Maybe the lesson is that we have to be careful when supposed experts tell us they “know” what took place thousands of years ago, and when it took place. This is especially so for those who are interested in Bible history and who know the chronology set forth in that reliable set of documents. The work of historians and archaeologists and philologists and linguists — and, yes, professors of rhetoric — is immensely valuable in helping us understand the past. But beware when someone claims to have the last word about what happened in the human past.

ARK — 1 November 2014







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The Great Detective

The Great Detective

So here’s a Sunday-late-night meditation. I love to read mystery fiction and to watch detective stories on TV. What is it about detective fiction that resonates with the human spirit (or at least with the spirit of some of us)?

I think at our core as humans we might have a hardwired attraction for storytelling. Storytelling seems to be a part of human culture for as far back as written records exist. But many of those stories involve enigmas and riddles. Tonight I’m wondering whether riddles and mysteries represent a storytelling form that might appeal to the human spirit at its core. Why? I’m not sure. Does a puzzle somehow help us to exercise mental muscles in a way that challenges and intrigues us? Maybe so.

Another thought I’ve had is that mysteries appeal to us in a moral sense. Most mysteries are fundamentally about justice. A great injustice has been committed — usually the horrific crime of spilled blood. The murderer must be identified, caught, and punished, or at least stopped. A student of the Scriptures would say that one of the primary qualities of Jehovah the Creator is justice. Created in his image, we reflect that moral quality. So perhaps we are drawn to a story that centers around that theme.

Okay, now back to the detective show I was watching …

ARK — 5 October 2014


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That’s a provocative title, I know. The truth is that I don’t actually refuse to read professional book reviews. But I seldom do, and I’m about to explain why.

For one thing, I do have time to read books, and lots of them. But I don’t have time to read a lot of what is written about books.

I’m certain many readers of books don’t read book reviews for that same reason. But not having time in itself is a lame justification for not paying attention to professional book reviews. However, there are also two important reasons why I place limited value on professional book reviews:

  1. First, professional book reviewers make their livings writing book reviews, and that fact colors their writing about the books they read. They have motivation to write what they are ‘supposed’ to write about the latest literary sensation. But also, they have to pan a certain portion of the books they read. If a reviewer likes all the books they read and that’s what they say in their reviews, what use are they? So they have to pooh-pooh a certain number of books to justify their existence.
  2. My second reason won’t matter to many readers, but it explains my motivation for placing a low priority on professional book reviews: Most reviewers have to tow the line on current literary trends. That means they don’t comment on elements of books that I need to know about: Does the book contain explicit sex scenes, sadistic violence, or extensive profanity? (See “Should a Novelist Write Characters Who Use Profanity?“) I told you this point wouldn’t matter to many readers, but it does to me, and professional book reviewers have to ignore such considerations or risk the disdain of mainstream luminaries.

All that said, I will occasionally read a book review in a publication such as The New Yorker, or at least a portion of such a review — often such reviews are insufferably long. But more often I will pay the greatest attention to ratings and reviews on Amazon, where I can find out what I really want to know: Is this a terrible book, and does it contain a lot of swearing? Thanks for letting me know. I’ll find something else to read.

ARK — 18 August 2014



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I was just alerted to an extensive online collection of historical artifacts from the Penn Museum. With almost 700,000 items, many from antiquity, the database includes photos and descriptions that are very useful for research and for writing. You’ll find many everyday objects that should help you visualize how life was during ancient times.

For example, I recently needed to write a scene where someone was using a scoop. Searching the Penn database for “scoop” revealed many hits, including this nice example of a woven scoop from Asia:

Asian woven scoop


ARK — 6 July 2014



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I ran across the following passage from Kurt Vonnegut’s Palm Sunday: An Autobiographical Collage (1999), a passage which in turn is from a letter Vonnegut wrote to someone who objected to one of his novels:

If you were to bother to read my books, to behave as educated persons would, you would learn that they are not sexy, and do not argue in favor of wildness of any kind. They beg that people be kinder and more responsible than they often are. It is true that some of the characters speak coarsely. That is because people speak coarsely in real life. Especially soldiers and hardworking men speak coarsely, and even our most sheltered children know that. And we all know, too, that those words really don’t damage children much. They didn’t damage us when we were young. It was evil deeds and lying that hurt us.

I see some good reasoning here. Recently, someone took offense because a racist character in one of my stories used a racial slur. I was puzzled as to what else I could have done, as the scene in question took place among a group of young white boys in the southern U.S. in the mid-1960s, and there is no doubt that a racist teenager would have used a racial slur, however reprehensible that might have been.

For me as a writer, though, the issue of profanity presents a dilemma — I mean profanity that relates to sex and other bodily functions. I want my stories to be believable, but I don’t use profanity in my daily life (well, ‘hardly ever,’ as the Captain of the Pinafore might say) and neither do my Christian friends or family members. I don’t wish to influence anyone else to use profanity and I don’t wish to be influenced to use profanity by the content I consume. So for the most part, I prefer to use strategies that allow me to write fictional accounts that don’t (or hardly ever) involve profanity.

As far as what I read, I have read Vonnegut in the past, as well as many other popular and literary authors. I read fiction every day and love it. I have frequently abandoned a novel because of the profanity of the narrator or a character. On the other hand, I have sometimes tolerated a certain level of coarse language in order to benefit from an otherwise excellent piece of fiction.

ARK — 22 September 2013

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I was struck by this quotation from Howard Zinn in The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction, by James Alexander Thom:

Historical fiction and nonfiction are both abstractions from a complex world of infinite fact. Both can tell the truth; both can lie. The “lies” (that is, distortions, omissions, exaggerations) in historical fiction may have two advantages over the “lies” (that is, omissions, exaggerations, distortions) in nonfiction. First, that they are at least entertaining. Second, that they do not make the same claim of being truthful.

The fact that historical fiction is more entertaining can also make it more dangerous  because it is more seductive, enveloping the lie in a sweeter package than nonfiction. Bad historical fiction may wrap a false idea (that blacks are inferior, that war is good) in an attractive story and thus make it more dangerous.

Thom, who is a great American historical novelist known for his careful research and accuracy, also quotes Washington Irving as saying, “I am always at a loss to know how much to believe of my own stories.” Thom then adds,

A historian, if he spoke candidly, should admit the same doubt. However capable and conscientious he may be, he is a storyteller, just like you and me and Washington Irving.

ARK — 8 January 2013

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Just a note to followers of this blog that I still exist. Even though I haven’t written a lot on this blog lately, I do follow very closely the traffic and comments on the pieces posted here, especially the article  “Have Archaeologists Found Skeletons of Biblical Giants in Greece?,” which has been read tens of thousands of times and is one of the top articles on the web on this topic.

In recent months, I have been doing a lot of writing on environmental topics under another pen name, so I haven’t been able to give a lot of attention to this blog. However, I am moving forward with the Edhai project, a long-term historical fiction series set in ancient times.

I do intend to continue actively writing on this blog and promise to do so more in the near future.

ARK — 20 March 2012


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SnowflakeOn his Advanced Fiction Writing web site, physicist and fiction author Randy Ingermanson offers an exciting method for developing a novel, called the ‘Snowflake Method,’ which he describes in detail on his page, “How to Write a Novel: The Snowflake Method.”

Since encountering the Snowflake Method, I’ve been using it on my current fiction project, and I find that it’s interesting and fun and is helping me to focus in on the story in a marvelous way. It has already helped me to identify some fundamental issues with the structure of the story and should help me to avoid a whole lot of re-writing later on.

In a way, the Snowflake Method reminds me of the concept of idea mapping, or Mind Mapping, in that it is radial in concept rather than linear. Ingermanson has you start small and unfold each little element of the novel simultaneously, in kind of a fractal pattern. He uses a snowflake as a metaphor, because the story starts as a simple set of points, each of which is expanded into its own set of points, each of which is in turn expanded into its own set of points, until eventually the first draft “crystallizes.”

Each step in the process is hard work, but at the same time no step is hard to understand — Ingermanson basically has you walk through a set of processes, almost like the exercises you might find in a Writer’s Digest manual on novel-writing or a university fiction-writing course — only you’re actually working on a real novel, instead of just an academic exercise.

The basic steps are:

  1. Write a one-sentence summary of the novel.
  2. Expand that summary into a paragraph.
  3. Write a one-sentence summary of each character’s storyline, then each character’s motivation and other key elements of that character’s role in the story.
  4. Expand each character summary into one paragraph.
  5. Expand the summary of the novel into a full page.
  6. Expand each character summary into a full page.
  7. SnowflakeExpand the one-page summary of the novel into four pages. As you do these various expansions, you are taking single sentences and expanding them to paragraphs at each step.
  8. Take each character description and expand it into a full character chart. At each step, Ingermanson encourages you to go back and revise the previous steps, as you learn new things about your story and its characters.
  9. Take the four-page synopsis and develop a list or spreadsheet of each scene you will need for the story, perhaps 100 scenes.
  10. The next step, which Ingermanson describes as optional, is to create a multi-paragraph summary of each scene — thereby building a narrative description of the whole story.
  11. Start writing the first draft of the novel, working out the “small-scale logic problems” as you go along.
  12. As you go along, continue to go back and fix problems with the earlier design documents.

I can see that this method saves a tremendous amount of work and useless material that will inevitably result from seat-of-the-pants writing.

ARK — 11 Sept. 2010

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